From bird habitat to tourist haven: the Kaliakra case
The Kaliakra peninsula in Bulgaria, a rocky outcrop stretching into the Black Sea, lies on the ‘Via Pontica’ migration route between Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe that tens of thousands of birds use every year. The site is also important for several rare breeding bird species, such as the Red-Footed Falcon, and its Ponto-Sarmatic Steppe grasslands are a priority habitat under the EU Habitats Directive.
The inland agricultural areas are the most important foraging grounds for the Red-breasted Goose, a globally threatened species. A large part of their global population spends every winter in coastal Bulgaria, which means that the Bulgarian government has a particular responsibility for the conservation of the species.
But in January this year, the European Court of Justice condemned Bulgaria for being in breach of the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives by failing to protect the Kaliakra peninsula site from deterioration. The Bulgarian government has failed to fully designate the Kaliakra area as a protected Natura 2000 site – it had only designated the coastline as part of the site until recently, leaving the inland agricultural areas that are vital for bird populations unprotected.
I visited the Kaliakra peninsula in February 2013. It is quite a long journey to Varna, the nearest airport, but the trip was well worth it (and not only because of the Bulgarian hospitality!). The views from the peninsula are breathtaking, and on a good day, you can even see dolphins and shearwaters in the Black Sea below.
But even then, it was clear that the peninsula had lost much of its beauty – a large part of the Important Bird Area has been excluded from designation on spurious grounds, and it housed a golf course and several hotels. Pieces of the unique steppe grassland had been ploughed and put up for sale, and there was an incredible amount of wind turbines, including many still under construction. These have reduced the feeding areas available to wintering geese, potentially jeopardising their winter survival.
The judgment is a testimony to the inaction of the Bulgarian government. Warning after warning by the European Commission (including after complaints by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds [BSPB], or BirdLife in Bulgaria) has been ignored, and in the end much of the site has been destroyed. The Commission now needs to ensure that the Bulgarian government will act and that the role of Kaliakra for breeding, migrating and wintering birds is restored, which will be a tremendous task.
Kaliakra sadly does not stand alone. All too often BirdLife Partners in the EU are confronted with plans and projects that damage or completely destroy Natura 2000 sites. In other parts of Bulgaria, Cyprus and Italy, similar developments are threatening dozens of sites. In 2013, LIPU (BirdLife in Italy) submitted a dossier to the Commission documenting the destruction of no less than 34 Natura 2000 sites. In other Member States other developments are threatening sites, such as the widespread destruction of grassland in Germany and Slovenia.
In the face of the Bulgarian government’s apathy, our Partners (BSPB, RSPB and other conservation organisations) have been working to mitigate the environmental damage in Kaliakra through the LIFE+ project ‘Save Ground for Redbreasts’ to protect the Red-breasted Goose in Kaliakra and other national IBAs. The project involved spreading awareness on the species, creating a Species Action Plan, and engaging with various stakeholders such as fishermen, farmers and hunters to work together to minimise the destruction of the geese’s habitats and food sources.
With the Fitness Check on the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, the European Commission has a chance to really improve site protection. This will require some bold steps – an increase in resources for enforcement in Member States and the Commission, and the deployment of new tools such as remote sensing to detect damaging projects in the Natura 2000 network faster.