The Natura 2000 Network, or “Natura 2000”, stands as the most significant component of Nature in the European Union, and represents the centrepiece of EU nature & biodiversity policy. The areas involved are found throughout the European continent, having been established to protect Nature in accordance with the provisions of the Habitats and Birds Directives. The goal of this ecological network is to guarantee the long-term survival of the European Union’s most valuable, and most threatened, species of flora and fauna and habitats.
The Natura 2000 Network is made up of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated by member states in accordance with the Habitats Directive, and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) identified in accordance with the Birds Directive. It should be noted that the Natura 2000 areas are not rigidly protected nature reserves in which no human activity is permitted. Indeed, as specified in the Directive establishing the Network, within the areas that make up the Network: « Measures taken ….. shall take account of economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics. ». In keeping with this approach, the Network includes not only unspoiled (or almost unspoiled) natural habitats, but also semi-natural environments, meaning those transformed by Man with traditional activities, such as grazing or non-intensive agriculture, while there can also be entire Natura 2000 sites, or portions of sites, that are owned by private parties.
While the “hubs” of the Network are the portions of territory that contain habitat and species facing especially high levels of threats, meaning the SACs and the SPAs, the architecture of Natura 2000 also has need of connecting zones between the different hubs. Though less interesting in environmental terms, these areas play a key role, preventing fragmentation of the Natura 2000 sites. They are referred to as “ecological corridors“, or territories that provide links between areas that are separated from each other but which are similar in terms of their ecological roles; they include elements of the countryside whose linear structures (as in the case of rivers) or capacity for interconnection (i.e. ponds and forests) make migration, geographic spread and genetic distribution of wild species possible.
At present, the entire Natura 2000 Network consists of approximately 26,000 sites found in all member states, for an overall surface area of more than 750,000 km2, representing 18% of the overall European territory. It is the largest existing network of protected areas in the world.
In Italy, Natura 2000 sites cover a total of 21% of the national territory, with 2,299 SCIs*, 27 of which have already been designated as SACs while 609 are SPAs. Protected inside of these areas are 130 habitats, 92 species of flora and 109 species of fauna (including 21 mammals, 11 reptiles, 16 amphibians, 26 fish and 35 invertebrates), plus approximately 381 species of bird fauna.
*SCI: means SITES OF COMMUNITY IMPORTANCE – these are sites identified by the states of the EU as containing animal and vegetable species and habitats at risk, and therefore requiring initiatives of protection. Following a phase of assessment by the European Commission, these areas are transformed by the Ministry of the Environment into SACs, or SPECIAL AREAS OF CONSERVATION.