Natura 2000 sites reduce, but do not halt, land use change and fragmentation

Authors and Affiliations: 

Anna V Scott (University of Reading)

Konstantinos Touloumis (Aristotle University)

Joseph Tzanopoulos (University of Kent)

Antonios Mazaris (Aristotle University)

Maria Lazarina (Aristotle University)

Simon G Potts (University of Reading)


The Natura 2000 network is the largest and most comprehensive habitat network in the world. It encompasses the flagship conservation policies of the EU: The Habitats Directive 1992 and the Birds Directive 1979. The network covers over 17% of the total land area of the EU and is comprised of more than 25,000 sites. Studies have shown the effectiveness of the Natura 2000 network for many species, with the extensive coverage of important habitats (Verovnik et al., 2011, Abellán et al., 2011, Donald et al., 2007). However, the full protection of other species is debated in some countries (Maiorano et al., 2007, Dimitrakopoulos et al., 2004), and the significant, long-term global decline in biodiversity has not been stemmed despite the EU’s 2010 target to halt biodiversity loss (European Commission, 2010).

Habitat availability and connectivity are imperative structural elements in the maintenance of biodiversity, having a major impact on the overall resilience of populations and communities. Research has shown how species richness is directly related to habitat cover (Radford et al., 2005), and that increasing the density and connectivity of habitats can increase the numbers of some declining species (Davies et al., 2005). Whilst, increases in fragmentation are thought to have a significant effect on species losses (Saunders et al., 1991). In this analysis, we ask the question: has the designation of Natura 2000 sites helped to reduce habitat loss and fragmentation?

Historic land cover maps provide a solid information base on which to examine changes in the structure of the landscape and highlight the most vulnerable habitats. In this analysis land cover changes and functional connectivity of historic CORINE land cover maps were analysed across Europe. This work compares the changes inside and outside of Natura 2000 sites for functional land covers types between 1990, 2000 and 2006.

The formation and consumption of each land cover class was calculated. Changes observed within the borders of the Natura 2000 sites and in the remaining ‘unprotected’ areas were calculated separately. The non-parametric Wilcoxon rank test was used to assess whether indices values differed significantly inside and outside of Natura 2000 sites. Furthermore, a Morphological Spatial Pattern Analysis (MSPA) performed by GUIDOS (Graphical User Interface for the Description of image Objects and their Shapes) was used. MSPA-GUIDOS segments the land cover data into mutually exclusive feature classes (Core, Islet, Perforation, Edge, Loop, Bridge, and Branch) based on their geometry and connectivity (Joint Research Centre -Forest Action, 2012). Statistical comparison of the MSPA-Guidos results demonstrated the differences inside and outside of Natura 2000 sites.

The dominant patterns of land cover change that we observed were the loss of habitats both inside and outside Natura 2000 sites. Natura 2000 status did not reverse the habitat losses observed outside of the protected areas, but it moderated those losses to an extent. However, the habitats covered by Natura 2000 were more likely to be ‘core’ habitat areas rather than edges or isolated ‘islets’. There were also a number of striking differences between countries. More work may be needed to understand how the Natura 2000 network can be managed to offer better protection for habitats. More guidance may be needed from the EU in order to addresses differences between countries.


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