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Towards a European Green Infrastructure – connecting Natura 2000 forest sites


The IES has recently published a report describing an integrated model designed to carry out pan-European harmonised assessments of the connectivity of Natura 2000* sites. The model, developed within the IES, is proposed as a potential tool to help map and build a ‘Green Infrastructure’ in Europe. It focuses on assessing the connectivity of (and identify isolated) protected areas, and could provide guidance to regional planning authorities to identify where to invest forest conservation and restoration efforts in the unprotected landscape.

Green bridge over the highway 464 near Boeblingen, Germany. Source: K. Foehl  

*Natura 2000 is a network of over 26,000 protected areas that cover almost 18% of the territory of the European Union. It aims to help conserve biodiversity while ensuring the sustainability of human activities. The connectivity of protected areas is essential to the movement and dispersal of animals and plants, and to enhance the conservation and resilience of protected habitats. About 80% of the sites in the Natura 2000 network include forest areas. 

Protected areas such as the Natura 2000 sites form the backbone of a Green Infrastructure for Europe. The EU’s Green Infrastructure Strategy is a holistic policy initiative integrating nature, biodiversity and sustainable development which is one supporting tool to implement the European Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 targets. One of its aims is to mitigate fragmentation and render protection more effective. One condition to achieve this is to increase the spatial and functional connectivity between natural and semi-natural protected and unprotected areas.  

Natura 2000 sites with forest areas

The JRC connectivity model integrates both structural and functional measures. Functional connectivity refers to the use of the landscape by the species (e.g. pathways for dispersal). The area of the sites, their distribution, the species dispersal capability, inter-site distances and landscape suitability for species dispersal in between sites are key factors in the assessment. The model provides the breakdown by country of the Natura 2000 network as isolated and connected protected areas. Functional connectivity, calculated for species that disperse on average 500m from their site of origin, is found to vary significantly between countries. Grey infrastructure (artificial lands and roads) and intensive agriculture pose the biggest threats to the dispersal of such species.

The JRC model can provide data and indicators to help assess ecosystem conditions and (habitat provision) services at regional, country and pan-European levels, enhance the coherence of the Natura 2000 network (in support of the Habitat Directive), and integrate environmental concerns into forest management (planning of afforestation measures in the context of natural water retention measures or in rural development programmes).

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