Realisation of the national ecological network - land acquisition and conversion, 1990-2021

On 1 January 2022 the area of land acquired for realising the national ecological network had increased to more than 117,000 hectares. Following acquisition this land is converted to new nature (landscape works, planting, etc.). From 2011, under the Nature Pact, the goal has been to establish 80,000 hectares of new nature by the end of 2027. At the end of 2022 almost 46,000 ha had been converted to nature. If progress continues at the same rate as over the last four years, the national ecological network will not be completed in 2027.

The area of acquired land has gradually increased since 1990
Through the acquisition of agricultural land for conversion to new nature, existing nature conservation areas are being expanded and linked together to form a network of natural areas: the national ecological network (NEN). The area of acquired land has increased to more than 117,000 hectares on 1 January 2022. In 2021, 2,141 ha of land became available for conversion to nature as part of the NEN.

Some of this land was acquired by the provincial governments. The remaining land has remained in private ownership, which is called 'self-realisation' or private conservation management. This land is designated for nature conservation (under the planning legislation in legally binding local land use plans or by notarial instrument imposing an obligation that runs with the land) and financial compensation is provided for the reduction in the value of the land in question under a dedicated subsidy scheme. The provinces originally had high expectations for expanding the NEN through self-realisation by private landowners. In practice, farmers have been less willing to do this than expected and so many provinces have switched back to a strategy of land acquisition and even expropriation (Kuindersma et al., 2020). Since 2015 the provinces no longer report separate figures for self-realisation or private conservation management (change of designated land use).

Rate of conversion to new nature slowly levelling off

In the Nature Pact (EZ, 2013) the provinces have agreed to convert at least 80,000 ha to new nature in the period 2011-2027 to realise the national ecological network (NEN). In 2021 a total of 1,247 ha were converted to nature, bringing the total amount of new nature created since 2011 to almost 46,000 (IPO & LNV 2021). Progress is slower than in previous years. If progress continues at the same rate as over the last four years (see figure) the conversion of the full 80,000 hectares will not be completed until 2035. The provinces indicated that in the years immediately following the revision of nature policy for the NEN in 2011, the conversion of land to nature progressed rapidly because much land had already been acquired before 2011. In addition, it is expected that acquiring land and changing the designated use of private land for the purpose of creating new nature will become more difficult in the coming years because it is dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of landowners (PBL & WUR 2017, 2020). The rate of progress must be speeded up to achieve the target of 80,000 ha new nature by the end of 2027. To this end, the provinces established a task force with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality towards the end of 2021 tasked with 'accelerating conversion of the residual target for additional nature'.

Each year the provinces make small corrections to the recorded area of acquired and converted nature conservation areas. This is due to the complexity of accurately registering detailed geoinformation. In 2002 and 2006 there were relatively large data corrections, which resulted in a downward adjustment of the area of acquired and converted land by thousands of hectares (see two dips in 2002 and 2006 for conversion to new nature). At the time the 'baseline survey' project showed that some of the converted land did not fully meet the requirements of the target natural habitats. These areas were therefore no longer registered as 'sufficiently converted'.

Changes to the national ecological network policy

The policy for the NEN dates from 1990. In 1990 the national government estimated that the area of existing natural and semi-natural habitat in the NEN was 450,000 ha (LNV 1990). At that time, the additional area to be realised by 2018 was about 250,000 ha. This was divided between new nature (approx. 100,000 ha of nature reserves and 50,000 ha of habitat creation) and agri-environment schemes or farmland conservation management (approx. 100,000 hectares). The new objectives for the conservation and improvement of nature in the Netherlands for the period to 2027 are set out in the Nature Pact, which was prepared jointly by the national government and the provincial governments (EZ, 2013). This states that between 2011 and 2027 the provinces will convert a minimum of 80,000 ha of land to nature for the realisaiton of the NEN. At the introduction of the Nature Pact in 2011 the provinces still had to convert 40,000 hectares of farmland or other land to nature, either through acquisition or through a change of designated land use by private landowners followed by private conservation management (IPO 2015).

The provinces have delineated the boundaries of the NEN that is protected under the planning legislation. However, the NEN as delineated on the map has not been fully realised. According to the eighth progress report on nature, in 2021 a total of more than 703,000 were under conservation management and therefore considered to be realised. Not all of the land within the current boundaries of the NEN will be converted to nature; a small area is still formally a search area for new nature and a small area will be subject to agri-environment management or other forms of nature-inclusive farming. On 31 December 2027 the minimum area of natural and semi-natural habitat within the designated NEN is expected to be approx. 738,000 ha (IPO & LNV 2022).

National ecological network has been the cornerstone of nature policy for 30 years

The restoration and conservation of biodiversity is an important national and international policy objective under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the EU Birds and Habitats Directives and the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Creating and managing a coherent national ecological network is one of the main strategies of Dutch nature policy.

The national ecological network is a network of existing natural and semi-natural habitats and agricultural land to be converted to nature. It was introduced in the 1990 Nature Policy Plan by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries. The aim of this network is to halt the decline in the area of natural and semi-natural habitat and the loss of biodiversity, to maintain the existing natural areas and biodiversity, and to improve biodiversity through the creation of a coherent network of protected areas. This is being achieved by increasing the size of natural areas and linking them together by acquiring the surrounding agricultural land and agricultural enclaves, followed by conversion to new nature and conservation management. Large contiguous natural areas are also favourable for improving water quality and environmental conditions.


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Reference of this webpage

CBS, PBL, RIVM, WUR (2024). Realisation of the national ecological network - land acquisition and conversion, 1990-2021 (indicator 1307, version 16,

) Statistics Netherlands (CBS), The Hague; PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, The Hague; RIVM National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven; and Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen.