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Natura 2000 Day: Securing a brighter future
for our seas

There are already all kinds of national, European and World ‘Days’ vying for our attention (and it can be hard to support them all), but this one is really quite significant for a few reasons...

May 2017

This month marked the first ever ‘European Natura 2000 Day.' In light of the potential challenges of Brexit to environmental standards, it is essential now more than ever that the tremendous successes of Natura 2000 should be recognised, and that everything it guarantees is not only maintained but strengthened. But what exactly is Natura 2000?

The project was set up for the last millennium to create what is now the largest coordinated network of protected areas for nature in the world. It brings together the combined provisions of the EU Nature Directives – in particular the EU Birds Directive 1979 and Habitats Directive 1992 – which established the creation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for breeding and overwintering birds, and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for species and habitats of European ‘importance’. When applied to the marine environment, these are known collectively as European Marine Sites (EMSs).

Talk of EU Directives in these Brexit-infused days can sometimes feel unseemly or inappropriate, but the Nature Directives are vitally important for the UK and were (until very recently) practically the only established basis of protection for our wonderful, unique marine environment.

The Directives work by setting out common objectives for significant or vulnerable habitats and species, and take account of the transboundary nature of wildlife. On adoption, individual EU Member States were required to ‘transpose’ these into domestic law within three years in order that these objectives could be met across the EU.

In England and Wales, this was done through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for the Birds Directive (which, perhaps confusingly, also includes important measures for certain non-bird species and the control of invasive alien species) and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (originally 1994) for the Habitats Directive. Similar legislation exists on the statue books in Scotland and Northern Ireland, meaning these Directives are enacted in law across the UK.

The UK’s network of EMSs guarantees protections for some of our most loved species, such as harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins, and marine habitats, such as cold-water reefs and seagrass meadows, all of which are under threat from harmful human activities such as unsustainable fishing practices and dredging. They also ensure that offshore installations such as oilrigs or wind farms must be installed and operated responsibly and harmlessly.

Perhaps less obviously, EMSs also secure an economic return in the form of ‘ecosystem services’ totalling an estimated €200-300bn per year across the EU. In the marine environment, these benefits include food provision, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, water purification, climate control and tourism – to name just a few.

The last Government committed to completing a network of Marine Protected Areas for UK coastal and offshore waters, largely by designating a comprehensive suite of Marine Conservation Zones. While we congratulate these efforts and urge the next government (whatever its makeup) to continue this, this network alone simply cannot be completed without maintaining and supporting the contributions of our own EMSs to the Natura 2000 network. So, with this in mind, let us celebrate this project and work together to ensure a brighter future for our most precious marine life.

Joan Edwards

Head of Living Seas, The Wildlife Trusts

Find The Wildlife Trusts on twitter @WildlifeTrusts

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.