Effectiveness of the European Natura 2000 network at protecting Western Europe’s agro-steppes

Joao Gameiro, João Paulo Silva, Aldina Franco, Jorge M. Palmeirim

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Assessing progress towards achieving conservation targets is a requirement for all countries committed to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Natura 2000 network is the largest protected area network in the world and was created to protect Europe’s threatened species and habitats, often requiring active management. This study assesses the effectiveness of areas classified under the EU Birds Directive at protecting Western Europe’s agro-steppes, the last remnants of suitable habitat for several endangered bird species. We quantify agro-steppe habitat change in the last 10 years using high-resolution aerial images of 21 Special Protection Areas and surrounding areas. The selected SPAs hold one third of the global population of great bustards Otis tarda , a flagship conservation species. Agro-steppe area losses occurred across all sites surveyed but were 45% lower inside Natura 2000 compared to non-protected areas. Natura 2000 sites still lost over 35 000 ha of agro-steppe habitat in 10 years, an area that could hold approximately 500 great bustards. These low yield farmlands are being converted predominately to permanent and irrigated crops. At the current rate of habitat conversion, agro-steppes could be reduced to 50% of the present area during the next century. Moreover, the greater conversions outside protected sites may transform the remaining agro-steppes into isolated “islands” with low population connectivity. Our study on agro-steppes illustrates the relevant contribution of Natura 2000 at protecting Europe’s key habitats, but also highlights crucial insufficiencies that still need to be addressed to achieve the CBD conservation targets and halt biodiversity loss.
Original languageEnglish
Article number108681
JournalBiological Conservation
Early online date9 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


  • Conservation
  • EU policy
  • Farmland habitats
  • Great bustard
  • Land use change
  • Natura 2000

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