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Europe and Central Asia
15 Mar 2015

The Birds Directive has made Europe safer for wild birds. But it is now under question…

Common Buzzard, Scotland © Mark Medcalf
By BirdLife Europe

By Ariel Brunner, Head of EU Policy at BirdLife Europe.

The illegal killing of birds is still a big problem across Europe and in some regions it is still at epidemic levels. Outrage is justified, but it sometimes risks drowning out the good news. Europe has never been as safe for wild birds as it is today, and levels of persecution are orders of magnitude lower than those seen thirty years ago. Much of the improvement is thanks to one of Europe’s most successful pieces of legislation - the Birds Directive. At a time when this landmark legislation is under political attack, it is important to remember the road we have already traveled, and look at the road we have ahead.

Let’s go back to the 1970’s. Throughout much of Europe, hunting season stretched from August to May, meaning that birds were shot on their way to breeding grounds and sometimes quite literally while sitting on their nests. Cranes, bustards, herons and most small birds were considered fair game. Raptors were routinely shot, poisoned and trapped across the continent. The Messina Strait was a death trap where thousands of migrating birds of prey were felled each spring. Most of the UK was virtually devoid of raptors. Trapping, netting and cruel lime-sticking were widespread practices. A huge market selling wild birds was thriving in the center of Brussels. Indeed, almost all the practices that we call now “illegal bird killing” were perfectly legal. Worse, the killing of birds of prey and other species considered “pest” and “vermin” was rewarded with bounties and promoted or directly carried out by the state. It was the generalized and unselective slaughter of birds that caused the public uproar that led to the adoption of the Wild Birds Directive in 1979 by the then European Community.

The Birds Directive changed all that. Its implementation has taken decades of campaigning by environmental NGOs, legal battles and many infringement procedures opened by the European Commission against many Member States. But the achievements have been staggering. Today, hunting methods, species lists and hunting seasons have been brought in line with the sustainability requirements enshrined in law. A few questionable derogations are still being issued here and there, and law breaking is still massive in some areas, but there is no doubt that the bulk of European hunting has radically changed its practices and that the worst form of indiscriminate mass destruction of birds have vanished from large tracts of the continent. Improvement in laws and their enforcement have in turned translated into a spectacular wildlife comeback. We have analyzed some of the most dramatic conservation successes in a large study published last year in cooperation with Rewilding Europe, ZSL and EBCC. To see the impact of the Birds Directives you do not need fancy statistics, a look outside the window is enough. Species that were once rarities, such as cormorants, herons or buzzards are now so common that they can be seen even inside our big cities. And spectacular flagship species once heading for extinction, such as the Golden Eagle, Black Stork and Common Crane, have become a normal part of the landscape in many regions. And if you still have doubts about the benefits of the EU for bird conservation, all you need to do is look at the horrific levels of persecution of migratory birds that are still prevalent across the Mediterranean in North Africa and the Middle East.

There is much to celebrate when we contemplate the last 35 years of bird protection in Europe, but much remains to be done. As the rest of this newsletter illustrates, unacceptable massacres of protected species are still happening across the EU from Spain to Cyprus to the UK. In 2012, the European Commission published a Roadmap to eliminate the illegal killing of birds. It aims to improve enforcement through a range of measures such as training of judges and prosecutors or improved coordination between law enforcement agencies. But more is needed. A crucial priority should be to adopt the long overdue legislation on environmental inspections, which should require Member States to invest sufficient resources in enforcement and to plan enforcement strategically at national levels.

The European Commission is currently conducting a “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Commissioner Vella is under extreme political pressure to reopen the directives in order to weaken them to make them more “business friendly”. Anyone who remembers how Europe looked before the Birds Directive and enjoys the soul lifting sight and song of wild birds should be speaking up. Europe has a good law which looks after our birds. We need it fully implemented, not tampered with.

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Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.