ECOS 38 (3): Missing links of Natura 2000

Lessons from Romania suggest Brexit may result in a damaged network of wildlife sites in new and old countries of the EU.

Natura 2000 context

The Natura 2000 network was founded in 1992, building on the Birds Directive (Directive 79/409/EEC amended as Directive 2009/147/EC) and the Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC), and now comprises sites for rare and threatened species and habitats found within the territories or adjacent seas of the 28 countries presently in the European Union.i It is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world, but rather than being a series of strict nature reserves, the network focuses on the conservation and sustainable use of often privately-owned land, with “people working with nature rather than against it”. The target species and habitats of the network were determined at a European level, prioritising those that represent the diversity present in Europe as a whole and setting priorities accordingly.

The UK has been part of the Natura 2000 network from the outset, participating in the drafting of the directives and the associated annexes, listing species and habitats. British scientists (e.g. Dorian Moss, Cynthia Davies and Barry Wyatt) played a leading in the development of the Corine and EUNIS systems that are fundamental to understanding the variety of European land-cover, habitats and their ecology.  The extent of the EU and the coverage of its directives spread from its original core in western Europe to include much of central and eastern Europe in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. The process of accession was supported by the Phare programme whose objectives were to:

  1. a) strengthen public administrations and institutions to function effectively inside the EU;
  2. b) promote convergence with the EU legislation (the Community acquis), reducing any lengthy transition; and
  3. c) promote economic and social cohesion.

Key Phare projects to aid Natura 2000 implementation began in 2006 in Romania and 2008 in Croatia. The accession of both these countries added markedly to the area of the Natura 2000 network and the range of species and habitats covered. By 2016, 22.56% of the land area of Romania was covered by Natura 2000 and 36.58% of Croatia, compared with an overall European coverage of 18% and a UK total of just 8.54%.

Only neighbouring Slovenia has a larger proportion of its territory designated under Natura 2000 than Croatia, and Romania is the only EU state to straddle five biogeographical regions i.e. Alpine, Black Sea, Continental, Pannonian and Steppic. The conservation of the natural resources of Romania and Croatia is urgent at the European level.

Natura 2000 site in Romania – Târnava Mare(Apold) in 2009.

A whole environment – with no borders

Whether or not there is a single European market, and whether particular countries belong to the EU, there remains a single European environment, where the plants, animals and ecological processes know no borders.  The role of Natura 2000 is central to safeguarding the common heritage of Europe and ensuring that conservation is properly coordinated, with collaboration toward a common purpose being its theme. During the 1990s and 2000s, Phare projects helped ensure effective implementation in countries where conservation had previously been fragmented or had taken a much lower priority than industrial production and systematisation of agriculture. In ex-Communist states like Romania, civil society was still poorly established in the 1990s, and expertise in some areas of nature conservation and rural development was thin on the ground.  Hence, the Natura 2000 implementation projects made considerable use of foreign advisers and scientists, in order to build capacity within the accession state, to ensure consistency of approach and to emphasise the theme of international collaboration in protecting wild Europe. The implementation teams and their partners in Romania and Croatia had specialists from Austria, Czechia, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and the UK, as well as many experts drawn from the accession states themselves.

There were clear advantages in this international approach to nature conservation. The balance between on the one hand the local desire to move the economy onto a market footing and to improve the standard of living and on the other to safeguard nature from a laissez faire explosion required the accession state to learn not simply from best practice but also from the pitfalls and mistakes experienced by other EU countries. Harmonising national law with that of the community directives set rigorous priorities with a grounding in sound science. This was clearly preferable to national law being swayed by the parochial priorities of a country assessing its own wildlife without regard to the status of species and habitats internationally. The exchange of expertise also levelled upward the standards between countries, rather than a race to the bottom. There was also healthy value in peer pressure and vying for success, whereby both Romanian and Croatian conservation specialists could take national pride in how their country ranked on a European scale.

However, there were also underlying problems with applying Natura 2000 to these countries on the Black Sea and Adriatic. The annexes of the Habitats Directive had been originally shaped in the context of western and central Europe.  Although efforts were continually made by DG Environment to update the guidance, notably through the Interpretation Manual for habitats (European Commission DG Environment 2013), the specialities of the east and southeast remained rather less well-represented in the annexes.  Local experts found some of the target species and habitats hard to justify e.g. 7210 Calcareous fens with Cladium mariscus and species of the Caricion davallianae, where Cladium is perceived an invasive species in some Croatian habitats. The history of Romania and similar states since 1945, in particular the continuing problem of corruption, led to local attempts to subvert EU environmental law by passing local “emergency” ordinances in response to pressure from vested business interests.

Land use change in Romania – the role of Natura 2000

In Romania, the concept of National Parks and nature reserves was well understood long before EU accession, but there was much less experience with agri-environmental schemes such as those coordinated through the EU Rural Development Fund. After the revolution of 1989, there was a strong move toward returning land to its pre-Communist owners. This process had a number of impacts.  Where nationally owned forests were privatised, often in tiny parcels, the restored owners decided in some cases to profit quickly from the windfall and clear-felled their holdings. When, during accession the small agricultural holdings were targeted for Natura 2000 protection, their tiny size made application of agri-environment schemes cumbersome and unattractive. The greatest success with agri-environment schemes occurred where NGOs, often with some partners from other EU states such as the UK (e.g. Fundaţia ADEPT and the Pogány-Havas Association, both in Transylvania), coordinated joint applications from groups of farmers or where EU twinning projects stimulated local action. Progress was affected not only by an ingrained suspicion of central government, and by extension, of EU directives, but also by scepticism over agri-environment instruments and whether a good living could be made under these schemes, especially as rural depopulation and emigration led to a limited ageing workforce. However, this cooperative approach, underpinned by international collaboration but founded on locally-based initiatives, was vital in countries that had possessed a centrally-directed economy for over 40 years.

The involvement of non-Romanians in building the Natura 2000 network had benefits and pitfalls.  The peculiar recent history of Romania and its impact on its people sometimes made the situation very difficult for foreigners to understand and one often heard cynicism from local partners – “that won’t work in Romania” or “you really don’t know this country and how it works”.  This pessimism was balanced by the enthusiasm of local activists and NGOs, as well as strengthening the resolve of ministry staff to achieve conservation goals. Where the foreigner could show how an action had worked elsewhere in Europe, the Romanians were often re-invigorated and glad to marry their local knowledge to international experience. The implementation of Natura 2000 in both Romania and Croatia succeeded in large part because of the fundamental teaming of national expertise with tried and tested approaches from elsewhere in the EU.

Natura 2000 site in Croatia – Vransko Jezero in 2008. Photo: Owen Mountford

Maintaining our baseline of nature, and our conservation influence

Although I would stress the value of the international nature of these teams, the particular role of the UK in European conservation law and advice should be acknowledged. Of course, the oft-repeated truism that English is now the most widely spoken second language in Europe (including the accession states) gives native-speakers an advantage in making themselves understood in advisory and training situations. However, the reputation of the British, together with the Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians, in conservation science has made them especially effective in providing examples of good practice. This hard-won respect proved invaluable, even when British economic policy worked in the opposite direction.  Thus, when during the 2000s the UK closed several research stations with an international reputation in ecology and nature conservation science (e.g. Monks Wood in Cambridgeshire), the reaction amongst mainland European scientists and conservationists was dismay, and many wrote or spoke in support of keeping these sites open and productive for the common good. My Romanian colleagues openly asked me what kind of message this sent to conservationists combating an unsympathetic government when a rich country like the UK reduced its commitment to the ecological research that supported sound environmental policy.  Undoubtedly, the positive influence of Britain on European conservation science was lessened as a result.

This decline and damage is likely to be redoubled as the Brexit process develops. Some British scientists have already noted marginalisation in joint projects and especially in new proposals for EU research. No doubt those behind the “Great Repeal Bill” will argue that its outcomes will maintain the status quo in conservation for the time being, at least as it refers to the key directives, not only those integral to Natura 2000 but also the Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC). However, mainland European conservationists will be paying close attention to how the UK now behaves, especially in those Member States where home-grown scepticism about the EU is growing. Will current Special Protection Areas (SPAs under the Birds Directive) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs under the Habitats Directive) in the UK receive at least equal protection post-Brexit? Will the UK still participate in the network of sites that represents the variety of European nature, or will it become increasingly isolated? Where protection measures for air, water, species and habitats need cooperation for success, will the UK still play its part? To some extent, non-governmental bodies based partly in the UK, such as the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), Fauna and Flora International or BirdLife International, maintain and will secure this British involvement in effective European environmental action and science. However, there is little doubt that the UK will be increasingly on the outside looking in where effective Europe-wide action is required – at least as far as any action sanctioned by central government in Whitehall is concerned.

To repeat, nature conservation and environmental protection should not recognise borders, as the wildlife and the factors influencing them also know no borders.  The promoters of Brexit may argue that this change provides an opportunity to improve and strengthen environmental protection in the UK, and that some of the impacts of EU law in the UK have been to hamstring successful conservation. Nonetheless, the close correspondence between Brexiteers and those advocating deregulation and neoliberal ideology in general strongly suggests that a loosening of protection for the environment will actually result.  If Brexit is not to prove a completely retrograde step, then the standards of the Habitats, Bird and Water Framework Directives must be retained as a bare minimum for the UK to adopt and improve upon.

During his closing address to the 2017 conference in York of the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, John Rodwell noted how the problems and solutions discussed at the event had involved scientists and environmentalists from all over Europe and had succeeded precisely because of this international dimension.  He also stressed the single European environment, and went on to remind the delegates, especially those from the UK, that the European significance of their habitats will remain, regardless of whether the UK is in the EU or not.  He went on to say that the relevance of the knowledge, experience and vision of other Europeans to UK policy will remain, and that he was proud to call them all “colleagues”. For myself, my own work has consistently benefitted from the fact that the EU has fostered collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas. The impact of the EU has sometimes been to unleash development, but broadly it has worked to protect the common environment.  As the press in Bucharest has humorously termed people like me, I may be one of the “Remainians”, but the fundamentals of science and of shared humanity mean that, as well as a Mackem and a Briton, I am part-Romanian and a European – here we stand, we can do no other.


European Commission DG Environment (2013).  Interpretation Manual of European Union Habitats – EU28.




The author is a retired CEH Fellow, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. He has played key roles in Natura 2000 projects in Romania and Croatia. 

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Mountford, Owen “ECOS 38 (3): Missing links of Natura 2000” ECOS vol. 38(3), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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