Forty Years of the EU’s Birds Directive




Forty Years of the EU’s Birds Directive

In April, there was a notable anniversary for all nature conservationists. It was 40 years since the European Union’s Birds’ Directive, the first environmental legislation from the EU and still a cornerstone of nature conservation.

Semi-collared flycatcher, Crete, April 2017.
More formally this is the ‘Council Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds.’ It is best known for setting up a network of Special Protection Areas (SPAs, as we call them in the UK). It also gives obligations to protect and conserve habitats for 194 species and subspecies, listed under Annex 1: bitterns, pelicans, terns and many birds of prey are just a few of these; passerines are often those with restricted distribution, such as semi-collared flycatcher and trocaz pigeon.

The agreement of the ‘Birds Directive’ in April 1979 coincides with my own career in nature conservation. I arrived at the RSPB’s HQ in the second half of 1978. The UK’s nature legislation had to be improved to implement the Birds Directive. A task I was given was to mobilise letter-writing support through RSPB members in local groups, via the Society’s regional network, to lobby to maintain or improve various elements of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, which became the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. As well updating the previous Protection of Birds Acts, this introduced legal protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

It is difficult to overstate how important for nature this has been in the last four decades. Not perfect, of course: nature has declined in the wider countryside especially, and some SSSIs have declined due to external factors like pollution, climate change and a lack of (or inappropriate) management. 
Kourtaliótiko Gorge, Crete, April 2019. A Special Protection Area (more here.)

But the big picture remains a network of protected sites. That network was reinforced further when the EU’s ‘Habitats Directive’ came in. The two nature directives work together: SPAs under the Birds Directive and Special Areas for Conservation (SACs) declared under the Habitats Directive make up the Natura 2000 network of protected areas in the EU, internationally important wildlife sites. 

The itineraries of many Honeyguide holidays include visits to Natura 2000 sites as a routine part of the holiday. Many of us have seen signs celebrating these: it’s interesting that the Natura 2000 label is used more on the continent than in the UK. Also, the EU’s ‘LIFE’ programme has funded many conservation projects often run by BirdLife partners: lammergeier, bittern, Dalmatian pelican and Egyptian vulture are examples you may have come across at home or abroad.
Plains at Santa Marta de Magasca, Extremadura, March 2019.
Part of the Natura 2000 network of internationally important wildlife sites (more here.)

Brexit or Remain for wildlife?

Here comes the political bit. What happens to this conservation legislation if/when the UK leaves the EU? We have the choice to keep it unchanged, improve it or undermine it. Widely-reported politician’s phrases like “get rid of all the green crap” make many fearful that nature protection will be weakened. This explains why most conservationists are instinctively pro-EU and pro-Remain. We (I include myself in this) take the view that nature protection should extend beyond national borders, with migrating birds the obvious example. We see the EU and its institutions as a support to nature conservation, setting common (and high) standards, a buffer and a back-stop against national governments that may make bad decisions that damage important sites for nature.

There is a coherent counter-argument that nature could benefit from Brexit: this relates to farming and the Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP has been a major factor driving agricultural intensification and wildlife losses as a result. The CAP has been resistant to change: getting agreement for major reform across so many EU countries has proved intractable. DEFRA Secretary of State Michael Gove’s ‘Green Brexit’ paper favours a big shift of subsidies away from production and into ‘public goods’ including wildlife and access. Gove isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I think he’s genuine. Fine if he stays: what if he doesn’t? The two previous DEFRA ministers were singing from the NFU’s hymn sheet.

Given where we are now, could there be half-way house that is a win-win for nature? The UK could stay aligned to the Single Market, bound by common standards of environmental protection – the Birds and Habitats Directives and other environmental directives such as on air, water and environmental assessment (plus other areas e.g. health & safety, workers’ rights). Yet outside the EU we would leave the CAP and implement wildlife-friendly farming. Too good to be true?


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