The European Commission has approved the extension of protected sites throughout Europe, a move that environmental groups believe will improve conservation efforts to protect the region's most seriously threatened habitats and species.
The 4,225 newly designated Natura 2000 sites of specially protected areas cover about 90,000 sq. km - an area roughly the size of Portugal - within four bio-geographical regions.
Sites were added in: the boreal region, which includes Finland, Sweden and the Baltic countries; the continental region, covering much of central Europe, including the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany and Poland; and the Atlantic seaboard region.
The Pannonian region, which includes parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, is a completely new addition to the network. Further updates to the Alpine region, including the Carpathian areas of Slovakia and Poland, plus an update of the Mediterranean region, are due later this year. 'We are extremely pleased by the European Commission's decision to extend the Natura 2000 network,' said Andreas Beckmann, Deputy Director for WWF's Danube-Carpathian Programme.
'This marks a major milestone for nature protection in Europe and is an achievement for WWF, which has been working for several years to support preparations for introducing Natura 2000 to new EU member states.'
WWF and its partners also played an important role in identifying and designating future Natura 2000 sites, as well as building capacity for their effective protection and management.
Natura 2000 is an EU-wide network of specially protected areas intended to ensure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable habitats and species, while supporting a healthy environment for EU citizens. It currently covers about 20% of the land territory of the EU's older member states, and is in the process of being extended to its newest members in Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.
Natura 2000 is also expanding the network in marine areas, and even non-EU countries, including those in the Dinaric Arc and Turkey, are starting to follow similar conservation approaches as part of their efforts towards EU accession.
'The decision to extend Natura 2000 for the first time to Central and Eastern Europe, where much of the EU's greatest natural wealth lies, comes none too soon,' Beckmann added.
'The additional protection will help save many of these areas against mounting pressure from unsustainable development.'
The establishment of the Natura 2000 network also fulfils part of the obligations of the EU and its member states under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.