Europe has a stunning diversity of wild animals, plants and habitats, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world. However, much of Europe’s natural heritage has been lost over the years due to urban sprawl, intensive agriculture, forestry and fisheries, pollution, and other human activities. This has led to the large-scale disappearance and degradation of many valuable natural areas and the species that live in them. Today, over a quarter of Europe’s animal species are at risk of extinction.
Preserving and restoring Europe’s rich biodiversity is one of the EU’s top priorities, as outlined in the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030. Biodiversity is not only important in its own right; it is also essential for our economy and well-being.
The Birds and Habitats Directives form the cornerstones of EU biodiversity policy. They provide a strong legislative framework for all EU countries to protect the most valuable and threatened biodiversity. Together, the two directives have also created the Natura 2000 network – which is now the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world.
The Habitats Directive aims to protect over a thousand species, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish invertebrates, and plants, and 230 characteristic habitat types.
The overall objective is to ensure that these species and habitat types are maintained, or restored, to a favourable conservation status within the EU. In addition to halting the further decline or disappearance of these species and habitats, the Directive aims to allow them to recover and thrive over the long-term.
The Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC) was adopted in 1992, thirteen years after the Birds Directive. Like the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive requires all Member States to establish a strict protection regime for species listed in Annex IV, both inside and outside Natura 2000 sites.
In particular, Member States must prohibit
- all forms of deliberate capture or killing in the wild
- deliberate disturbance, e.g. during breeding, rearing, hibernation and migration
- deterioration or destruction of breeding sites or resting places
- deliberate destruction of nests or eggs, or the picking, collecting, cutting, uprooting or destruction of protected plants in the wild
- the use of all indiscriminate means of capture or killing capable of causing local disappearance and serious disturbance to populations of such species, and
- the keeping, transport and sale of specimens taken from the wild
Member States must also take measures, where necessary, to ensure that the taking or exploitation of specimens of species listed in Annex V is compatible with their being maintained at a favourable conservation status.
Member States must designate, protect and manage core areas for habitat types listed in Annex I and species listed in annex II of the Habitats Directive. Sites are selected on scientific grounds using the criteria laid down in the Directive (Annex III).
- Each Member State first proposes a national list of important sites to be protected for those species and habitats present on their territory.
- The Commission then selects, with the help of the Member States, the European Environment Agency and scientific experts, Sites of Community Importance (SCIs).
- The selected Sites of Community Importance become part of the Natura 2000 Network.
- Member States then have up to six years to designate them as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and to introduce the necessary management measures to maintain or restore the species and habitats present to a good condition.
Today, thanks to the Habitats Directive, Member States have classified over 23 500 SCIs across the EU. Together, they cover almost 950 000 km2 of land and sea – an area greater than Spain and Sweden put together. The Natura 2000 Network also includes Special Protection Areas (SPAs) classified under the Birds Directive. Collectively these sites are often referred to as “Natura 2000 sites” and are now the largest coordinated network of protected areas anywhere in the world.
In 2015, the Commission carried out a ‘Fitness Check’ of the EU Nature Directives to see whether they are 'fit for purpose'. The overall conclusion of the findings, published in December 2016, is that, within the framework of broader EU biodiversity policy, the two nature directives remain highly relevant and are fit for purpose. However, there needs to be a substantial improvement in their implementation if they are to achieve their objectives.
In response to the Fitness check, the Commission launched a new Action Plan in 2017 to rapidly improve the practical implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives. The Action Plan also aims to accelerate progress towards the EU goal of halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ensures the uniform application and interpretation of EU law. Over the years the Court of Justice has issued an important number of Rulings on the Birds and Habitats Directives. These provide an important source of jurisprudence as regards the interpretation of various legal provisions. The rulings can be consulted using the case law search tool.
Strict protection regime for listed animal species
Articles 12 to 16 of the Habitats Directive require Member States to set up and implement a strict protection regime for species listed in Annex IV across the whole of the EU, both inside and outside protected areas.
In October 2021, the Commission adopted a guidance document providing legal interpretation and clarifications on Articles 12 and 16 of the Directive. The document also includes information, advice and good practices to help national authorities address conflicts between strictly protected species and human activities.
The European Union is home to five species of large carnivore: the brown bear, the wolf, the wolverine and two species of lynx. Human activities have led to a dramatic decline in numbers and distribution of these species in Europe.
Find out more about the measures under the Habitats Directive to support the recovery of large carnivores in the EU.
European Species Action Plans
Since 2008, the Commission has supported the development of several Species Action Plans for selected species listed in the Habitats Directive. The plans provide information about the status, ecology, threats and current conservation measures for each species and list key actions to improve their conservation status in Europe. Each Plan is the result of an extensive process of consultation with individual experts in Europe.
The following Action Plans are available:
- The Common Midwife Toad - Alytes obstetricans
- The Danube Clouded Yellow butterfly - Colias myrmidone
- The European Ground Squirrel - Spermophilus citellus
- EU Bat species: Action plan (2018-2024) and complementary document (2018-2024)
In November 2018, was adopted by the Standing Committee of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) and recommended for implementation under the Habitats Directive in May 2019.
The European Red List of Threatened Species
The European Red List of Species provides a scientific review of the conservation status of around 11 000 European species.
Developed by IUCN, with financial support from the EU, the European Red Lists identify those species that are threatened with extinction at the European level so that appropriate conservation action can be taken to improve their status.
Please find here the European Red List publications.
Interpretation manual of habitats listed under Annex I
An interpretation manual of European Union Habitats listed under Annex I of the Habitats Directive provides a common definition of each Habitat type across all Member States.
European Habitat Action Plans
The Commission has developed EU action plans for two of the most threatened habitats under the Habitats Directive
- European dry heaths (4030)
- Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies on calcareous substrates (Festuco-Brometalia) (*important orchid sites) - 6210
Management models for protected Annex I habitat types
In 2008, the Commission developed management models for 25 habitat types listed under the Habitats Directive which need active recurring management. These models are designed to help national authorities and site managers prepare their own site-specific management actions.
Each of the 25 models provides a detailed overview of the distribution, ecological requirements, main trends and threats of the habitat type in question. It also provides a description of appropriate management prescriptions and techniques for their conservation. The findings are drawn from a comprehensive review of the best available information in different EU countries.
European Red List of Habitats
The first ever European Red List of Habitats was published in 2016. It reviews the current status of all natural and semi-natural marine and terrestrial and freshwater habitats and highlights the pressures they face. Over 230 terrestrial and freshwater habitats were assessed. It uses a modified version of the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems categories and criteria. It covers the EU28, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the Balkan countries and their neighbouring seas.
The Red List covers a much wider set of habitats than those legally protected under the Habitats Directive. It therefore complements the data collected on Annex I habitat types through Article 17 reporting.
Reporting on the conservation status of species and habitats under Article 17
Every six years, Member States must report to the Commission on the conservation status of species and habitat types protected under the Habitats Directive that are present on their territory. Several scientific parameters are used to assess their status (good, poor, bad) across their natural range within the EU, and not just in protected areas.
The results are published, together with the reporting on bird species under the Birds Directive in a ‘State of Nature in the European Union’ report. The last report, published in 2020, presents the results of the 3rd reporting cycle for the period 2013–2018.
According to the latest report, only a quarter (27%) of the species have a good conservation status at EU level. This is an increase from 23% in 2015. Most species (63%) continue to have a poor or bad status. The situation is worse for habitats - just 15% having a good status. The vast majority (81%) are in a poor or bad status.
The next report, due in 2025, will cover the period 2019-2024. Materials for the competent reporting authorities are available on the Art.12 reporting reference portal of the European Environment Agency.
Derogation reporting under Article 16
Under specific conditions described in Article 16 of the Habitats Directive, countries may derogate (grant exceptions) from the provisions of species protection under Articles 12 to 15 of the Directive. Derogations are only allowed if there is no other satisfactory solution and the consequences of these derogations are not incompatible with the overall aims of the Directive.
Every two years, Member States must submit a derogation report to the Commission on the derogations they have granted to the strict species protection regime. The Commission then checks the reports to ensure that all the conditions of Article 16 have been fully respected. If the Commission identifies issues, it communicates these to the Member State concerned.
To facilitate the task of reporting derogations, the Commission has developed an online reporting tool, Habides+, which is supported by the European Environment Agency.
The Commission also regularly produces composite derogation reports which provide a consolidated EU level analysis of the Member States’ annual reports. In the interests of transparency and to facilitate access to the information submitted by the Member States, the Commission has developed online derogations data viewers.
The Commission has developed interactive data viewers which present detailed information on the derogations submitted by the Member States, as well as statistics on the completeness of these reports
- The Natura 2000 newsletter (EN, FR, DE, ES, IT, PL)
- The EU Birds and Habitats Directives
- The State of Nature in the EU - Conservation status and trends of species and habitats protected by the EU Nature Directives 2013–2018
- An Action Plan for nature, people and the economy (2017-2019)
- The strict protection of species under the Habitats Directive
- The Fitness check of the Birds and Habitats Directives
- The Habitats Directive – Celebrating 20 years of protecting biodiversity in Europe
For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.