Birds Directive - Safeguarding Special Protection Areas for Europe's birds
One of the key provisions of the Birds Directive is the requirement on Member States of the European Union to classify and protect the “most suitable” sites for the conservation of birds as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in their European territory. Member States are obliged to submit detailed lists of these SPAs to the European Commission in Brussels.
How are SPAs identified and selected?
SPAs must be selected and legally classified for all species listed in Annex I of the Directive (Article 4.1), as well as for regular migratory species (Article 4.2). These sites must include the habitats needed by the particular species during mating, breeding and feeding and for migratory species also for moulting, roosting and wintering. The Directive makes a special mention of wetlands and in particular wetlands of international importance designated as sites under the “Ramsar Convention” .
How does BirdLife support the designation of SPAs?
The Directive does not provide explicit criteria for the selection of SPAs. Since 1981, when the Directive came into force, BirdLife International has developed a set of scientific criteria for the selection of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) of European Union importance that satisfy the requirements of the Directive in this respect. Using these criteria, and the data and expertise from its huge network of scientists and volunteers, BirdLife has produced national inventories showing the IBAs of all EU Member States. All together BirdLife has identified 3,404 IBAs in the 27 Member States to date (2008).
Download the poster: IBAs in the European Union (PDF 1,42 MB)
Although the IBA criteria have no direct legal force for the selection of SPAs, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has in several of its rulings against Member States highlighted the exceptional value of BirdLife’s IBA inventories as the best scientific evidence available for the selection of SPAs, therefore implicitly acknowledging the validity of the IBA criteria. A list of relevant judgements of the ECJ can be accessed here. (European Commission's website)
How should SPAs be managed and protected?SPAs designated under the EU Birds Directive automatically become part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network. The Habitats Directive spells out the way in which Natura 2000 sites have to be protected and managed by Member States (read more on Natura 2000).
What is BirdLife doing to protect SPAs against harmful developments?The EU Birds and Habitats Directives are an invaluable, both strong and flexible tool, for protecting Europe’s most important sites for nature- together with stakeholders and without excluding people. Despite this, SPAs frequently come under threat, or are even destroyed, by harmful development or land use changes. In many cases this happens when authorities and developers do not follow the appropriate procedures for assessing the impact of their activities, ignore alternative solutions with lesser impact or fail to provide adequate compensation measures for any loss of wildlife and habitats.
BirdLife Partners and the BirdLife Secretariat in Brussels regularly monitor the status of SPAs and fight back when they come under threat. If actions at the national level don’t bear the required results, there is always the option of filing a formal complaint to the European Commission, who then has the obligation of assessing each case on its merit. If it finds the Member State in question neglecting their obligations under the Birds or Habitats Directives, the Commission can start a legal process that can lead to a Judgement from the European Court of Justice against the Member State. Over the years, BirdLife has successfully launched and followed many such complaints, not only to protect individual sites but also for non-designation of SPAs. Read more on our EU casework here.
How can the success of SPA protection be assessed?
BirdLife stresses the importance of maintaining all SPAs at a “favourable conservation status”. This means that the populations of all bird species for which the site was designated in the first place (called “qualifying” or “trigger” species) should be able to maintain themselves at the site in good numbers. To assess whether a site is in a favourable status or not, it is necessary to define for each qualifying species what these “good numbers” might be (in scientific terms the are called specific conservation objectives or “favourable reference values” ). The BirdLife Birds and Habitats Directives Task Force adopted a position on how to set these levels and how to assess the status of SPAs.