The Action Plan: ‘Fit for Purpose’ Nature Directives given a new lease of life

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Following a period of uncertainty, the EU Nature Directives, which protect vast numbers of EU wildlife, are set to flourish under a new ‘Action Plan’.

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Half a million voices: record-breaking response defends EU Nature Directives

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Image of a marsh fritillary, a rare species of butterfly found in Wales.

Image from Flickr by Steve Childs. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The Nature Directives are two key pieces of EU legislation that underpin the protection of wildlife and habitats – often considered the cornerstones of environmental law in Europe.

When the European Commission announced in 2014 it was evaluating these Directives via a ‘Fitness Check’, it was met with an unprecedented reaction: there were over 550,000 responses from the public.

Views on the Nature Directives came from far and wide across the EU. So what exactly are these Directives? And what was the outcome of the evaluation?

The Nature Directives

The Fitness Check focussed on the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive, collectively known as the ‘Nature Directives’. They protect more than 1,400 threatened species and nearly 1.15 million square kilometres of habitat in Europe.

The Birds Directive (2009/147/EC) is the oldest piece of EU environmental legislation, first created in 1979. Its purpose is to protect the 500 wild bird species which are native to the EU, their eggs, nests and habitats. Measures include the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to protect habitats for endangered or migratory species.

The Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) was adopted in 1992. It provides protection for over 1000 animal and plant species and 200 habitat types. A key part is the designation of significant habitats as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

The Habitats Directive brings together SACs and SPAs into the Natura 2000 network, a coherent ecological network of protected sites.

Despite these protection measures, biodiversity loss within the EU remains a concern. The State of Nature Report 2016 , for example, found that one in 14 species in Wales is heading for extinction. More information on the report can be found in a previous In Brief blog post.

The Nature Directives in Wales

The provisions of the Directives are implemented through a range of legislation including the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Offshore Marine Conservation Regulations (Natural Habitats, & c.) 2007 (as amended).

In 2015, the UK had 924 Natura 2000 sites, covering 95,106 square kilometres (8.54%) of terrestrial and marine land. Wales currently has 20 SPAS and 92 SACs. More information can be found on the websites of Natural Resources Wales and Welsh Government.

The Fitness Check

The Fitness Check forms part of a wider effort known as REFIT – the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme. REFIT aims to review the entire stock of EU legislation to ensure it is simple, fit-for-purpose, and that it delivers its intended benefits.

The Fitness Check assessed the Nature Directives against 5 main criteria:

  • Effectiveness – have the objectives of the legislation been met?
  • Efficiency – were the costs involved reasonable?
  • Coherence – is the legislation contradicting or complementing other policy and legislation?
  • Relevance – is EU action still necessary?
  • EU added value – could similar changes have been achieved at national or regional level, or did EU action provide clear added value?

The substantial public response was largely due to campaigning by environmental NGOs. The ‘Nature Alert’ coalition, for example, brought together over 120 European NGOs, and was responsible for 90% of responses from the public. Campaigns were also carried out by alliances in other sectors such as landowners, forestry and hunting. Reponses were also submitted by the private sector including commerce and energy companies.

The evaluation was also informed by previous outputs such as the mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy and the Commission’s 2015 report ‘State of Nature in the EU’.

Key facts and figures

In the Fitness Check evaluation report (PDF 1.98MB) key figures include:

  • 552,472 responses to the public consultation;
  • 105,033 (19.0%) of these came from the UK, making the UK response the second highest after Germany (which had 106,357);
  • in 2011, the Natura 2000 network directly and indirectly supported between 4.5 and 8 million jobs across the EU; and
  • the estimated cost of implementing Natura 2000 across the EU is at least €5.8 billion (£5.1 billion) per year, while the benefits are valued at €200 – 300 billion (£173 – 260 billion) per year.

The outcome

In December 2016, the European Commission published the outcome of the Fitness Check. Whilst concluding that the Directives are fit for purpose, it also identified scope for improvement in implementation:

Within the framework of broader biodiversity policy the Nature Directives are fit for purpose but fully achieving their objectives and realising their full potential will depend on substantial improvement in their implementation in relation to both effectiveness and efficiency, working in partnership with different stakeholder communities in the Member States and across the EU, to deliver practical results on the ground.

The European Commission announced on 7 December 2016 that it would uphold the Directives and develop an Action Plan to tackle some of the implementation challenges which had been identified.

Brexit and nature conservation

The Fitness Check has highlighted the important role that the Nature Directives play in nature conservation. In the context of the proposed UK withdrawal from the EU, what does the future hold for nature conservation in Wales?

To help answer this question, Assembly Committees have been examining the potential implications of Brexit for the environment. More information can be found in the In Brief blog post ‘Brexit and the environment: the UK legislature’s preparations for leaving the EU’.

Article by Jeni Spragg, National Assembly for Wales, Research Service
The Research Service acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Jeni Spragg by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which enabled this blog post to be completed.

EU State of Nature Report: European laws play an important role in defending biodiversity, however significant declines continue.

02 July 2015

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Photo of an otter in long grass

Image from Flickr by Peter Trimming. Licenced under Creative Commons.

The European Commission has published a new State of Nature Report (PDF 432 KB) which it says provides the ‘most comprehensive picture yet’ of the conservation status of species and habitats in the EU. It provides an assessment of the Habitats and Birds Directives based on data from 2007-2012. The report presents a mixed picture on performance, and has drawn strong reactions from environmental NGOs.


Every six years, Member States must report on the conservation status of species and habitat types protected under the Habitats and Birds Directives. The report covers all wild bird species (about 450), 231 habitat types and more than 1200 other species of EU interest.

This State of Nature report is underpinned by the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) technical report, State of Nature in the EU: Results from reporting under the nature directives 2007-2012 which draws on assessments submitted by Member States. The 2015 report is the first assessment to cover both the Birds and Habitats Directives and as such the Commission states that it is the largest collaborative data-collection and assessment of nature undertaken across the Member States.

Key findings


Pie chart showing bird population status

The report shows that about a third of bird species (32%) have unfavorable status. It shows that many bird species, e.g. birds of prey and many large carnivores, have shown significant improvements in some areas, but these improvements are currently limited to local or regional level, and have not yet scaled up to European level. Case studies show that:

  • Once common farmland species such as the Skylark, Alauda arvensis and the Black Tailed Godwit, Limosa limosa are now threatened;
  • The Roseate Tern, Sterna dougallii has reached a stable population status after suffering huge declines in the 1970s and 1980s.

Species under the Habitats Directive

Pie chart of species conservation status

The report shows that over half (60%) of species under the Habitats Directive have unfavourable status. Only 16% of the fish species assessed have favourable conservation status, over a quarter of vascular plants (29%) and amphibians (28%) are considered favourable and 21% of mammals. Case studies show that:

  • The Otter, Lutra lutra, is showing signs of improvement. In the Atlantic region, it has made a steady recovery over the last 20 years which the report accredits to a decrease in certain waterborne pollutants.
  • The Large Copper butterfly, Lyceana dispar, is also improving across the Continental region which the report accredits to targeted conservation measures.

Habitats under the Habitats Directive

Pie chart of habitats conservation status

The report shows that about three quarters (77%) of habitats under the Habitats Directive have unfavourable status. The main threats to habitats identified were:

  • agricultural practices including modification of cultivation practices, over-grazing, abandonment of pastoral systems, fertilisation and pesticides;
  • human-induced “modifications of natural conditions” mostly relating to hydrological changes.

The report states that the Natura 2000 network appears to be an effective conservation measure which also benefits non-target species. When looking at the habitats and species with an unfavourable status a positive correlation can be detected between the level of Natura 2000 coverage and conservation status trends.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, commented on the report’s findings:

The results are mixed but clear. When implemented well, conservation measures work and improve the status of habitats and species on the ground. Such improvements remain limited and patchy, and unfortunately Europe’s biodiversity is still being eroded overall and the pressures continue.

Wider implications

The State of Nature reports serve as input to the Mid-Term Review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy. The findings will also feed into the ongoing Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directive.

Stakeholder responses

Friends of the Earth have commented that:

The European Commission must abandon plans to weaken its nature directives. This report confirms that European laws play a crucial role in defending our most precious habitats and wildlife, and must be enforced across the EU.

Ariel Brunner, Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe, stated:

The new report shows that conservation efforts are having an impact but that the overall situation of EU biodiversity is still dire. If we do not deal urgently with some of the major drivers of biodiversity loss, agriculture in particular, we are going to miss the 2020 target, lose precious habitats and species and pay a high price as a society.

The Commission have published a brochure with a breakdown of the report’s findings.

State of Nature in Wales

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has recently produced a report which sets out current evidence on the state of natural resources in Wales. It highlights that the majority of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA) habitats in Wales are in unfavourable condition (75%) with the exception of caves (100% in favourable condition).

This report is designed to start the discussion and process of how NRW can improve the evidence base to inform the preparation of the State of Natural Resources Report which will be a new duty of NRW under the newly laid Environment (Wales) Bill.

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Is EU nature protection legislation ‘fit for purpose’?

22 May 2015

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Photograph of red kite in grassland

The Birds (2009/147/EC) and Habitats (92/43/EC) Directives form the basis of EU nature conservation policy. The Directives establish strict protection regimes for species and habitats of conservation importance across the EU and require the designation of nature conservation sites for the species and habitats listed within their Annexes.

Specifically the Habitats Directive requires the designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and the Birds Directive requires the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Together, SPAs and SACs form the Natura 2000 ecological network of protected sites. There are currently over 27,000 sites within the network across the EU.

Fitness Check

A ‘Fitness Check’ of this EU nature protection legislation is to be carried out by the European Commission. This involves an evidence-based policy evaluation to assess whether the regulatory framework is ‘fit for purpose’ in delivering its objectives. The Fitness Check is part of the Commission’s wider Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT). Fitness checks have already been carried out for EU freshwater and waste related legislation.

The Fitness Check will inform the Commission in drawing policy conclusions on the future of EU nature protection legislation. However, it is still unknown as to whether the Fitness Check will lead to a legislative proposal to revise the current nature protection legislation.

The mandate for the Fitness Check, which was published in February 2014, defines the overall scope and aim of the exercise. In this context it will examine:

  • Effectiveness – Have objectives been met?
  • Efficiency – Were the costs involved justified by changes achieved?
  • Coherence – Does the action complement other actions or are there contradictions?
  • Relevance – Is EU action still necessary?
  • EU Added value – Did EU action make a difference? Evidence gathering and public consultation.

A public online consultation to gather opinions on the Birds and Habitats Directives, was launched by the Commission on 30 April 2015 and will run until 24 July 2015. The results of the consultation will feed into the Commission’s Fitness Check. The questionnaire is in two parts with an initial set of questions followed by more detailed questions exploring different aspects of the Fitness Check.

This consultation follows an evidence-gathering exercise which started at the beginning of this year in which all Member States and selected key stakeholder groups were consulted. Between April and the end of June this year, meetings are also being held in ten Member States to gather and examine evidence in more detail, specifically evidence related to costs and administrative burdens associated with the nature Directives.

The Commission’s State of Nature in the EU report, which has recently been published, also provides evidence for the Fitness Check. This report is based on Member States’ conservation status assessments of the species and habitat types protected by the Birds and Habitats Directives. The mid-term view of the Biodiversity strategy, expected later this year, will provide further input.

Next steps

  • 24 July 2015- The online public consultation will end.
  • October 2015- A stakeholder conference will be held in Brussels where the preliminary results of the nature legislation assessment will be discussed.
  • End of 2015- The study collecting and assessing evidence for the Fitness Check is ongoing and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
  • Early 2016- The Commission is expected to draft and present its Fitness Check document which is likely to take the form of a Commission Staff Working Document.

Stakeholder responses

Many environmental organisations have expressed concerns around the Commission’s Fitness Check and potential review of the existing nature legislation. The Woodland Trust has raised concerns that the Commission’s decision will be a political one. It fears that a legislative review could weaken protection of species and habitats with an associated loss of ‘ecosystem services’, and also threaten the regularity framework for sustainable development leading to business uncertainty.

Earlier in May, almost 100 EU environment and civil society groups including WWF, Birdlife, and Friends of the Earth joined to register their opposition to the Commission’s potential plans to reform the nature Directives launching an online campaign.

The RSPB has also launched a ‘Defend Nature’ campaign in light of the Commission’s assessment. The RSPB states that:

European leaders are considering rolling back decades of progress by revising the Directives in the mistaken belief that weaker protection for wildlife is good for business. In reality, this would be bad for business, and a disaster for wildlife.


*Image from Flickr by Tony Hisgett. Licenced under Creative Commons.

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