Europe and Central Asia

Scientists prove EU bird laws save threatened species

By Sanya Khetani-Shah, 27 Jul 2015

The European Union’s Birds Directive – often believed to be one of the world’s most progressive and successful set of nature conservation laws – has had a huge impact in protecting Europe’s most threatened bird species, according to new research by the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPBBirdLife in the UK), BirdLife International and Durham University in England.

“We analysed information on all bird species breeding across the European Union”, said Dr Fiona Sanderson, RSPB scientist and lead author of the paper. “Our findings confirm that species with the highest level of protection under the Birds Directive [listed in Annex I]… are more likely to have increasing populations, and that these results are most apparent in countries that have been members of the European Union for longer.”

While this may sound natural, the study, published in the journal Conservation Letters, noted that as a result of stronger conservation measures, a majority of Annex I species (like Dalmatian Pelican, Common Crane, White-tailed Eagle and White-Headed Duck) are now improving their populations more than other threatened species that are not on that list.

This could point to a need to better implement protection projects for species across the other annexes as well. The report also stated that long-distant migrants didn't do as well as those flying short distances, meaning even strong conservation measures are not yet able to sufficiently protect birds from dangers along their migration route and climate change.

Dalmatian Pelican, an Annex I species brought back from the brink of extinction. Photo: Sebastian Bugariu

The globally threatened Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus Crispus was driven nearly to extinction in Europe in the 20th century due to loss of habitat, degradation, persecution and collision with power lines. However, thanks to the directives, more than 2,500 breeding pairs are now in existence, five times the number of a few decades ago.

White-Headed Duck bounced back from 22 to 2,000 thanks to conservation measures. Photo: Agustín Povedano

White-headed Duck (Oxyura Leucocephala) was just as threatened. There were only 22 left in 1977 because of wetland destruction and persecution, but thanks to strong protection of their habitat and other conservation measures, there are now more than 2,000 in the wild.

Black-tailed Godwit has seen an average 50% decline in population over 25 years. Photo: Andreas Trepte, Photo-natur.de

Bird species listed in the other annexes are not as lucky. For example, Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa Limosa), despite being part of Annex II, continues to see a rapid decline in population and is listed as ‘threatened’ in Europe and ‘Endangered’ in the EU27. In Europe, the population size has decreased by an estimated 30-49% over three generations, while the EU27 has seen a 50-79% decline.

“Our research proves that, in an era of unprecedented climate change and habitat loss, those threatened birds protected by the Birds Directive are more likely to prosper”, Dr Paul Donald, the RSPB’s principal conservation scientist, said.

The research is being published just days after the closure on 26 July of a public consultation on the future of the European Union’s nature laws. The European Commission is currently reviewing the Birds and Habitats Directives, looking into their effectiveness. Signatures from 520,325 people and 120 NGOs supported the online campaign against this review in the largest public response to any consultation published by the European Commission.

“At a time when the benefits of EU membership are increasingly questioned, this research shows that, at least for nature, the EU is making a huge positive difference,” said BirdLife Europe’s Head of EU Policy, Ariel Brunner. “It would make no sense for the European Commission to demolish legislation proven to work and which enjoys a massive level of support among citizens.”

Read the report here.