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Designating Natura 2000 sites

Find out how EU countries designate Natura 2000 sites, and more about the EU’s biogeographical regions.


EU countries must designate Natura 2000 sites to protect certain species and habitats of EU importance.

Under the Birds Directive, they must designate the core breeding, resting and wintering sites for 190 rare or threatened bird species listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive, as well as for certain other migratory bird species.

Under the Habitats Directives, countries must designate sites for over 1000 plant and animal species and 233 habitats. These are listed in the Annexes I and II of the Habitats Directive respectively.

Designating sites under the Habitats Directive

Sites of Community Importance

Under the Habitats Directive, EU countries

  • carry out an inventory of potential sites for each of the listed habitat types and species that are present on their territory
  • select the most important ones using scientific criteria laid down in Annex III of the Directive
  • submit the lists of proposed Sites of Community Importance to the Commission

The Commission then identifies the Sites of Community Importance based on the national lists. During this process, the Commission consults the country concerned, the European Environment Agency and scientific experts.

All sites that contain priority natural habitats and/or species are automatically considered as Sites of Community Importance. If not enough sites have been proposed, the Commission requests that the EU country proposes further sites to complete the network.

Special Areas of Conservation

EU countries then have a maximum of six years to designate the Sites of Community Importance as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

Once a site is designated as a Special Area of Conservation, EU countries must maintain or restore the species and habitats to a good condition.

See guidance on designating Special Areas of Conservation.

Designating sites under the Birds Directive

Under the Birds Directive, EU countries

  • select the most suitable territories for the Annex I species and migratory birds on their territory
  • designate these territories as Special Protection Areas

To help EU countries identify the most suitable areas, a scientific reference list of Important Bird Areas was developed by BirdLife, with the support of the European Commission. All EU countries must use this list unless they have carried out their own scientific assessments of suitable sites.

When the sites are classified as Special Protection Areas, they immediately become an integral part of the Natura 2000 Network. EU countries are therefore required to prevent their deterioration.

Standard Data Forms

Every site included in the Natura 2000 Network is accompanied by a standard data form that should be updated regularly. The form provides information on

  • the name, location, area coverage of the site
  • a detailed map of its boundaries
  • ecological data on the species and habitat types present
  • a description of the site, its threats, pressures and activities, ownership and site management

Find out more about these forms and their format or consult the data forms on the Natura 2000 Expert viewer.

Delisting or adjusting sites

A Natura 2000 site can only be fully or partly declassified in exceptional cases if

  • the initial designation was due to a proven, genuine scientific error
  • unpreventable natural developments have caused the disappearance of the protected species and habitats, for example due to climate change
  • a site had to be deteriorated for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, and adequate compensation measures have been taken

The Commission has issued guidance to clarify the conditions that need to be fulfilled for a site to be removed or its boundaries to be adjusted. These are based on several rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU.

List of sites per EU biogeographical region

The species and habitats in the Natura 2000 network reflect the diversity of nature across the European continent.

The EU has nine terrestrial biogeographical regions and five marine regions. Each region has its own characteristic blend of vegetation, climate and geology. Working at the biogeographical level makes it easier to conserve species and habitat types under similar natural conditions across countries.

Biogeographical regions are used to select Sites of Community Importance under the Habitats Directive (on land). They are also used to assess the conservation status of species and habitats under the Habitats Directive.

Download the map of the biogeographical regions of Europe.

The EU lists of Sites of Community Importance per biogeographical region is updated every year. See the latest updated lists of Habitats Directive sites for the following regions: