The Habitats Directive

The EC Council Directive on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (92/43/EEC) (The Habitats Directive).

The aim of the Directive is to contribute towards ensuring biodiversity through the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora within the European Community. It requires Member States to take measures to maintain or restore at favourable conservation status, natural habitats and species of Community importance. In undertaking these measures Member States are required to take account of economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics (Article 2).

The Directive establishes a coherent network of special areas of conservation (SACs) composed of sites hosting natural habitats listed in Annex I and the habitats of the species listed in Annex II, to enable the habitats and species to be maintained or restored at favourable conservation status in their natural range (Article 3 & 4).

The network of sites entitled Natura 2000 includes special protection areas (SPAs) classified by Member States under the EC Birds Directive (Article 3).

For SACs Member States shall establish the necessary conservation measures, involving, if need be, appropriate management plans which correspond to the ecological requirements of the habitats and species present on the sites (Article 6.2)

Member States are required to take appropriate steps to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats and habitats of species, and the significant disturbance of species for which areas have been designated (Article 6.2).

Where plans or projects are proposed which may have a likely significant effect on a site, an assessment of the impact (appropriate assessment) is required. Unless other provisions are satisfied, consent can only be given having ascertained no adverse effect on the integrity of the site. This precautionary approach is the fundamental principle underpinning the Directive. In spite of a negative assessment a plan or project may still proceed if there are no alternatives and imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature. For rarer habitats and species (priority habitats and species) the only considerations are those relating to public health or safety or of beneficial consequences to the environment. Where such plans and projects are permitted, Member States must take compensatory measures to ensure the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected (Articles 6.3 & 6.4).

The Habitats Directive amends the EC Birds Directive (79/409/EEC) so that the protection measures contained within Article 6.2 , 6.3 & 6.4 apply to SPAs (Article 7).

Measures for the protection of species listed in Annex IV of the Directive are contained in Article 12 and prohibit:

  • deliberate capture or killing of these species in the wild;
  • deliberate disturbance of these species particularly during breeding, rearing, hibernation and migration;
  • deliberate destruction or taking of eggs from the wild;
  • deterioration or destruction of breeding sites or resting places, and
  • the keeping, transport, sale or exchange, or offering for sale or exchange, of species taken from the wild.

Article 13 provides specific measures to protect plant species listed in Annex IV prohibiting:

  • deliberate picking, collecting, cutting, uprooting or destruction of such plants in their natural range in the wild, and
  • the keeping, transport, sale or exchange, or offering for sale or exchange, of species taken from the wild.

Member States shall take measures to ensure that the taking from the wild of species listed in Annex V as well as their exploitation, is compatible with being maintained at favourable conservation status (Article 14). Measures may be introduced to ensure compliance with this article including:

  • regulation of the period and or methods of taking specimens;
  • application, when specimens are taken, of hunting and fishing rules which take account of the conservation of such populations;
  • establishment of a system of licensing;
  • regulation of the purchase, sale, offering for sale, keeping for sale or transport for sale of specimens.

Article 15 requires Member States to prohibit certain means of capture and killing listed in Annex VI.

Provided that there are no satisfactory alternatives and that derogations are not detrimental to the maintenance of the populations of species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range, Member States may derogate from the provisions of Articles 12, 13, 14 and 15.

Member States are required to undertake surveillance of the conservation status of natural habitats and of wild fauna an flora (Article 11), and report on the implementation of the Directive every 6 years (Article 17).

Guidance on the application of the Directive can be obtained from the European Commission's website.

The Habitats Regulations

The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 transpose Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (EC Habitats Directive) into national law. The Regulations came into force on 30 October 1994, and have been subsequently amended several times. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 consolidate all the various amendments made to the 1994 Regulations in respect of England and Wales. In Scotland, the Habitats Directive is transposed through a combination of the Habitats Regulations 2010 (in relation to reserved matters) and the 1994 Regulations (as amended). The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995 (as amended) transpose the Habitats Directive in relation to Northern Ireland.

The Regulations specify the roles and responsibilities of public bodies (competent authorities), owners and occupiers, and the statutory advisors for nature conservation in meeting the obligations of the Habitats Directive. It places a general duty upon all public bodies in the exercise of their functions to have regard to the requirements of the Directive.

The Regulations transpose the measures for new plans or projects in Article 6.3 and 6.4 of the Directive. There are specific provisions for marine sites and species protection provisions.

The Regulations require competent authorities to consider or review planning permission, applied for or granted, affecting a European site, and, subject to certain exceptions, restrict or revoke permission where the integrity of the site would be adversely affected. Equivalent consideration and review provisions are made with respect to highways and roads, electricity, pipe-lines, transport and works, and environmental controls (including discharge consents under water pollution legislation). Special provisions are also made as respects general development orders, special development orders, simplified planning zones and enterprise zones.

It is government policy that sites listed under the Wetland Convention (Ramsar sites), are also treated as though they are designated as European sites.