According to the [EU Habitats Directive] the habitat of a species means an environment defined by specific abiotic and biotic factors, in which the species lives at any stage of its biological cycle. The conservation status of a natural habitat means the sum of the influences acting on a natural habitat and its typical species that may affect its long-term natural distribution, structure and functions as well as the long-term survival of its typical species. The conservative status of a natural habitat is favourable' when: (i) its natural range and areas it covers within that range are stable or increasing, and (ii) the specific structure and functions which are necessary for its long-term maintenance exist and are likely to continue to exist for the foreseeable future, and (iii) the conservation status of its typical species is favourable.
Although 5% of the world's natural habitat is formally protected from development, much of this area is threatened with encroachment by activities such as farming and logging. In many cases, levels of protection both in and outside existing protected natural habitats need to be strengthened.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends: (a) providing mechanisms to preserve threatened areas that could protect wildlife, conserve biological diversity or serve as national parks; (b) developing strategies for networks of [in situ] conservation areas and the use of tools such as on-farm [ex situ] collections, germplasm banks and related technologies.
The aim of the [EU Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1992] (Habitats Directive) is to contribute towards ensuring biodiversity through the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora. The implementing measures are to be designed to maintain or restore, at favourable conservation status, natural habitats and species of wild fauna and flora of Community interest. The [Habitats Directive] requires the EU member states to identify, designate and conserve areas that are necessary to maintain or restore habitats and species of Community interest at a favourable conservation status. The habitats and species are listed in several Annexes:< Annex I lists natural habitat types of Community interest whose conservation requires the designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), and includes priority natural habitat types;< Annex II lists animal and plant species of Community interest whose conservation requires the designation of SACs, and includes priority species;< Annex IV lists animal and plant species of Community interest and in need of strict protection, and is to guide member states in the selection of sites that are potentially of Community importance;< Annex V lists animal and plant species of Community interest whose taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures.
These Annexes list 253 habitat types, 200 animal species and 434 plant species as being of Community interest. A limited number of priority habitat types and priority species are also distinguished. The areas selected (SACs), together with the Special Protection Areas designated under the Birds Directive will make up "Natura 2000" - "a coherent European ecological network". Each member state shall contribute to the creation of Natura 2000 in proportion to the representation within its territory of the natural habitat types and the habitats of species. For these areas member states shall establish the necessary conservation measures.
The process of selecting sites begins with the submission of lists of potential sites by member states to the Commission, with a deadline of June 1995. It proceeds to the adoption of a list of "Sites of Community Importance" (SCIs) by biogeographical region, by June 1998 and is completed with the designation of SCIs as SACs in individual Member States by 2004. Member states shall bring into force the laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to comply with the Directive within two years of its notification. Every six years from 2000 member states shall draw up a report on the implementation of the measures taken under this Directive. Parallel with their proposals for sites eligible for designation as SACs, member states shall send to the Commission their estimates relating to Community co-financing which they consider necessary to allow them to meet the obligations. In addition to proposals by member states for the designation of SACs, there is also a procedure to allow the "designation in exceptional cases of a site which has not been proposed by a Member State but which the Community considers essential for either the maintenance or the survival of a priority habitat type or a priority species".