Virgilio Hermoso et al. identify prioritisation exercises that could better-distribute conservation funds in the EU in their recent Policy Direction, Spatial prioritisation of EU’s LIFE‐Nature programme to strengthen the conservation impact of Natura 2000.

The EU has made significant conservation efforts in the last two decades. Guided by the Birds and Habitats Directives, member States have designated the world´s largest network of protected areas, the Natura 2000 network, which includes more than 27,000 sites covering >1 million km2 (18.3% of the land surface and about 6 % of marine area). There is evidence of the positive impact these efforts have had on the conservation status of EU´s biodiversity. However, overall the proportion of species in favourable condition has only seen a very small increase: 1-2% more species in 2015 than in 2007.. Meanwhile there is still a significant proportion of species whose condition continues deteriorating.

Different reasons might be behind this poor impact of conservation efforts, but insufficient investment has been claimed as an important factor. The financial allocations for Natura 2000 from the EU budget were between €550 and €1150 million annually in the period 2007-2013, which only represents between 9 and 19% of the financing needs of this network. Beyond the insufficient budget to cover the management needs of the network, there are inadequacies in the way the investment has been carried out. In a review of the LIFE-Nature conservation programme, which is the main and most direct financial tool that the EU has for funding conservation actions, Hermoso et al. found that the programme had not adequately covered continental conservation needs. The majority of funds in the period 1992-2013 were directed towards non-threatened species or regions of low conservation priority, while threatened species within the lists of species in the Directives had received, on average, less attention. Given the limited resources available for conservation, new mechanisms to close this gap are urgently needed in the face of the rapid decline of continental biodiversity.

In our recent study published in Journal of Applied Ecology, we demonstrate a method that could be used to identify priority Natura 2000 sites, and species therein, that could then guide investment in the future. We use Marxan, a commonly applied tool for identifying priority areas for conservation, to prioritise the spatial allocation of LIFE-Nature funds. We found that some Natura 2000 sites show exceptional value at continental scale, mainly concentrated on islands (both Atlantic and Mediterranean) and in the south western, eastern and northern extremes of Europe´s mainland thus reflecting patterns in species richness and endemism. These Natura 2000 sites, and the species identified during the prioritisation process, are of high priority for investment to adequately cover all species listed in the Habitats and Birds Directives. The study also found that the observed distribution of LIFE funds in the period 1992-2013 did not align with the priorities that arose from the prioritisation exercise.

We propose that prioritisation exercises like these could be used to inform a top-down EU regulation mechanism by providing lists of site and species priorities that better reflect European conservation needs. These recommendations, performed at continental scale, could then help guide LIFE project proposals from the Member States and fill the current gap in the coverage of priority species. These priorities could also be periodically revised, for example after each LIFE programme, to account for the investment already done and the new conservation needs that might emerge, making the system flexible and capable of facing changing conditions. This top-down control mechanism could be integrated into the current system of budget distribution, rather than replacing it completely, to enhance the efficiency of conservation investment in the EU and achievement of international goals.

The full Policy Direction, Spatial prioritisation of EU’s LIFE‐Nature programme to strengthen the conservation impact of Natura 2000 is free to read in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Find out more about Policy Directions here.