Europe and Central Asia
6 Jul 2015

Fighting the enemies of Europe’s natural world

Alpine ibex © Macke827, Flickr
By Luca Bonaccorsi

“Timmermans and Juncker want to improve the Nature Directives? We have our doubts, but if that’s really true, here’s what they should be looking for...” Alistair Gammell, father of the Birds Directive, speaks out:

Alistair Gammell, former international director of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) can easily be credited (although he would never say it himself) as one of the ‘fathers’ of the Birds Directive, the EU’s oldest piece of nature legislation and one of the most important.

The Directive, created in 1979, launched a comprehensive scheme of protection for all wild bird species occurring in the European Union. This was in response to increasing concern about the decline in Europe's birds due to pollution, loss of habitats and unsustainable killings. The Directive also recognised that wild birds, many of which are migratory, are a shared heritage of the Member States and their effective conservation required international co-operation.

With more than 30 years at the RSPB, Gammell’s is truly a life spent in the protection of nature, and birds, of course. We asked him what he thinks of the current state of his brainchild.

Mr. Gammell how did the Birds Directive happen?

I think the first idea came from Germany. You must understand the context of that time: traditional hunting had gone crazy. People had more time, money and better technology. Together with urbanisation and the spread of intensive agriculture, the slaughter of birds was just horrific. And southern Europe was incredibly bad. In that context, the Germans asked for European action, a form of protection from killing. I joined the fight in 1974.

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Was it difficult to get the Directive approved?

In principle everyone agreed, but the details were… difficult. The first draft was published by the Commission in 1976. The political discussion lasted until the approval in 1979.

What details were the most contentious?

Well, for example, the French wanted to be able to shoot the Ortolan Buntings and Skylarks, whilst Germany, The Netherlands, the UK and Denmark wanted to protect them. So in the end, we had to find a compromise and we only listed the ortolan.

You gave in on the skylark because it needed less protection?

No, there was no science to justify that. It was just a political compromise to approve the annexes [the attached documents with the species to protect]. Despite the compromises, those documents very well thought through: they allow hunting of certain birds, in certain countries and seasons and even allow concessions for trapping. Almost 40 years later, we can appreciate how far sighted a law that is. And the results are under everyone’s eyes.

What results?

Since the Directive was passed, birds in Europe have declined, but for those listed on Annex 1 [endangered species] it has been very successful, as studies, such as the one from Paul Donald, show. And bird killing has declined dramatically in southern Europe.

The new president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, seems to think the Nature Directives are outdated and not fit for purpose.

Really? I think they are really good, but certainly need to be strengthened.

That’s exactly his message: they’re old and don’t protect nature enough. 

His words sound good, but I fear he just wants to rip the gut out of them.

What makes you say that?

A number of reasons. For example: are the Annexes old? Fine, let’s reopen them. But you know what? They do not want that, because in the end, given the poor state of European nature, we would have to add species. And politicians do not want that.

What should Juncker and Timmermans do or say to prove they really want to improve the Directives?

They should be talking about significant extra money, about integrating agriculture funds with the Directives so that farmers in Special Protection Areas get support. And I do not hear that. Let me be clear: we will see their proposal and examine it line by line. It is up to them to prove they really want improvement. And if that is the case, they will have our full-hearted support. Unfortunately, we have lots of reasons to doubt it.

What would you say to Juncker and Timmermans if you met them tomorrow?

That Europe is not special only for its languages, monuments and culture, but also for its nature. Our nature is our culture, our heritage. We must cherish it, preserve it for the future and invest in it. That’s exactly what the Nature Directives do. 

Do you mean trees and birds are like monuments and paintings?

When I fly back to Europe, I do not look at the top of factories. I look at the green landscape, at the forests, the shoreline: This is my European homeland. Anyone can make a car, and everyone does. But our wildlife, culture and habitats are unique to Europe.

Establishing protected areas has been a fact of enormous importance for tourism and culture.

I see them as art galleries. It’s who we are. The landscape is a founding element of one’s own self. That’s why when I witness an attack on nature I think of the Taliban destroying cultural heritage.

Juncker and Timmermans… the Taliban of Europe?

Of course not, it’s an exaggeration, they [the Taliban] are assassins. But follow my reasoning: if nature is our cultural heritage, those who destroy the Directives must be considered vandals. And the same goes for those who, through neglect, allow it to happen.

Do you think they will overhaul the Directives? Hundreds of NGOs across Europe are campaigning against it and more 300,000 citizens have signed a petition to stop it.

No, it will not happen. There are millions that consider this a really important fight. Especially if we get each of the BirdLife partners to engage citizens and people in the streets through websites, letters, engaging national ministers, MEPs… I believe every right-thinking woman and man in Europe should want this heritage to be preserved.

Former US President Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” Let’s follow his advice.


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