Today is the 20th anniversary of two key instruments for the conservation and sustainable use of nature in the EU: the Habitats Directive and LIFE, the EU financing programme for the environment. Twenty years ago, EU Member States unanimously adopted the Habitats Directive to safeguard the most threatened species and habitats across Europe. This was in response to concerns over rapidly declining wildlife and loss of natural habitats, resulting from land-use changes, pollution and urban sprawl. To give species and habitats space to recover, the Directive set up the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and the LIFE financial instrument has provided strategic support to its development.
Two decades after its adoption, the Directive has gone a significant way towards halting the large-scale destruction of our most valuable biodiversity assets, and a number of species and habitats are already showing signs of recovery. The Natura 2000 network contains more than 26,000 protected sites over an area equivalent in size to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic combined. Almost 18 % of the EU’s territory is now included in the network, along with 200.000 square kilometres of protected areas at sea. Slovenia, for example, has designated over a third of its territory as protected areas.
EU funding for nature conservation has increased in the last 20 years. Adopted at the same time as the Habitats Directive, LIFE has contributed over Eur1.2 billion to the management and restoration of over 2000 Natura 2000 sites across the EU.
LIFE-funded projects are responsible for bringing endangered species back from the brink of extinction, like the Freshwater pearl mussel in Germany and the Czech Republic, the Abruzzo Chamois in Italy, the Hungarian meadow viper and the Spanish Imperial Eagle. LIFE is also supporting the conservation of the fire-bellied toad in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Latvia.
The large-scale destruction of valuable wildlife-rich habitats has been halted thanks to a great number of practical restoration projects across the EU such as those for protecting sand dunes in Lithuania, cleaning Posidonia beds of alien species in France, as well as restoring the Danube in Austria, the deciduous forest in Sweden, wetlands in the Netherlands, raised bogs in Poland and Denmark. Many of these initiatives have been supported by LIFE.