The Habitats and the Birds Directives form the cornerstone of Europe's nature conservation policy.
Within Europe natural habitats are continuing to deteriorate and an increasing number of wild species are seriously threatened. Much of this results from anthropogenic environmental pressures. The main aim of the EC Habitats Directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity by requiring Member States to take measures to maintain or restore natural habitats and wild species at a favourable conservation status, introducing robust protection for those habitats and species of European importance. In applying these measures Member States are required to take account of economic, social and cultural requirements, and regional and local characteristics.
The Habitats Directive (more formally known as Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora) is built around two pillars: the Natura 2000 network of protected sites and the strict system of species protection. All in all, the Directive protects over 1.000 animals and plant species and some 220 so called "habitat types" (e.g., special types of forests, meadows, wetlands), which are of European importance and listed in the Directive's Annexes (Annex I covers habitats, Annexes II, IV & V species). These are species and habitats, which are considered to be of European interest, and there is an obligation for all Member States to monitor these species and habitats.
The Habitats Directive introduces for the first time the precautionary principle for protected areas; that is, that projects can only be permitted if no adverse effect on the integrity of the site is ascertained. Projects may still be permitted if there are no alternatives, and there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest. In such cases compensation measures will be necessary to ensure the overall integrity of the network of sites. As a consequence of amendments to the Birds Directive these measures are to be applied also to sites covered by the Birds Directive.
The Birds Directive (more formally known as Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds) is the EU's oldest piece of nature legislation and one of the most important, creating a comprehensive scheme of protection for all wild bird species naturally occurring in the Union. Its was adopted in 1979 as a response to increasing concern about the decline in Europe's wild bird populations resulting from environmental pressures. It was also in recognition that wild birds, many of which are migratory, are a shared heritage of the Member States and that their effective conservation requires international co-operation.
The Directive recognises that habitat loss and degradation are the most serious threats to the conservation of wild birds. It therefore places great emphasis on the protection of habitats for endangered as well as migratory species (listed in Annex I), especially through the establishment of a coherent network of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) comprising the most suitable territories for these species. Since 1994 all SPAs form an integral part of the NATURA 2000 ecological network.
The Birds Directive bans activities that directly threaten birds, with a few exceptions. The Directive recognises hunting as a legitimate activity and provides a comprehensive system for the management of hunting to ensure that this practice is sustainable. It promotes research to underpin the protection, management and use of all species of birds covered by the Directive (Annex V).