Europe and Central Asia
22 Mar 2017

The Meaning of LIFE

Bearded Vulture. Photo: Jay Hem
By Gui-Xi Young

This week, the European Union celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Gui-Xi Young examines the 'meaning' of LIFE - the EU"s fund for nature, environment and climate protection.

As we celebrate the 60th year of European unity, and in a time when this unity is being tested, we would be wise to recognise the protection of our shared environment as the great purpose – and the great unifier – of our times. And so, in this anniversary week, BirdLife ponders the meaning of life by exploring the facts of LIFE – the concrete ways in which the European Union has supported nature conservation projects through its globally unparalleled LIFE fund.  


The kiss of life

Since 1992, LIFE has invested more than €3 billion in over 4,000 projects. BirdLife partners across Europe have spearheaded many of its most successful initiatives and our work together has given the kiss of life to some of our continent’s most threatened species. In France, BirdLife LPO’s LIFE GYPCONNECT project has ambitious plans for the iconic Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). This magnificent bird of prey has captured imaginations since ancient times when the soothsayers of Greece interpreted their silhouette in the skies as a portent. In 1920s-30s, they all but disappeared from the Alps, but thanks to reintroduction schemes, they began breeding in the wild again in the 1990s. Now, with €4 million of LIFE funding, LPO is working to reconnect populations in the Alps with those in the Pyrenees. By the project’s end in 2021, we may very well see the Bearded vulture’s unmistakable lozenge-shaped tail soaring across the skies all the way from Pau to Mont Blanc!

Bearded vulture. Photo: Richard Bartz 


A breath of fresh air

The LIFE fund has quite literally breathed life back into some of our most crucial natural habitats by financing long term ecological restoration projects. The LIFE AYCOTCON project allowed SOS/BirdLife Slovakia to work with local farmers in Medzibodrožie to pump water back into the drying wetlands of the region. Great bitterns began to return, along with several pairs of the very rare Ferruginous duck, and a whole new colony of waders – Purple heron, Great White egret, Black-crowned Night Heron. Over in Belgium, Natuurpunt’s LIFE VISBEEK project has revived some of the nature-rich heathlands, fens and meadows that covered the Valley of Visbeek until the end of the 19th century. From now on, sustainable goat grazing led by local volunteers will ensure that the area is carefully managed for future generations. 


Life at sea

On the tiny Shiant Isles of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, RSPB’s LIFE SHIANTS is attempting to fix a 300 year old problem. Back in the 18th century, stormy seas brought a shipwreck to their untouched shores – and an invasion of non-native black rats with it. Today, the islands are home to one of the most important breeding colonies for seabirds in Europe; around 10% of UK puffins and 7% of UK razorbills breed here annually. But some 3,600 rats also run rampant over the island, consuming eggs and chicks. Over the winter of 2015-16, the RSPB began a rat eradication programme and it is now monitoring the recovery of key bird species like Manx shearwaters and European Storm petrels. With another year to go, the early signs are looking good for seabirds. 


Storm petrels filmed on the Shiant Isles - an important step for the project (c) RSPB


This is just one piece of the puzzle. Thanks to LIFE funding, BirdLife has pioneered new marine science and helped set international bench marks for seabird conservation. In Portugal and Spain, SPEA/BirdLife Portugal and SEO/BirdLife’s sister LIFE projects in the early 2000s effectively created the scientific tool kit for identifying, monitoring and protecting Marine IBAs (Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas). Thanks to radio-tracking and the use of data-loggers on larger birds, they were able to follow birds out at sea and identify key distribution patterns for feeding and resting areas. Several subsequent LIFE projects have used this methodology (e.g. in Greece, Malta, Slovenia) and it has led to the designation of a huge number of European Special protected marine areas.


Birds know no borders

And what is the purpose of the European Union if not to inspire the cooperation of its nations? Birds know no borders and our conservation work often has to take a transnational approach. LIFE has been a driving force for ‘partner to partner’ cooperation within the BirdLife family. At the end of last year, four of our partners launched the flagship ‘PannonEagleLIFE’ programme; eleven organisations in five countries – including BirdLife partners in Hungary (MME), Czechia (CSO), Austria (BirdLife Austria) and BPSSS (Serbia) – have six years and €3.5 million of LIFE funding to save the enigmatic Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliacal) across the Pannonian region.

Eastern Imperial Eagle (c) Svetoslav Spasov 

With a body length of about 80cm and a wingspan of 2m, the Imperial Eagle cuts an intimidating figure. It’s therefore not surprising then that most Imperial Eagle deaths are due to human interference – illegal shooting and poisoning, habitat destruction and collision with power lines. Through this project, national park rangers and police will investigate bird crimes against eagles with trained dog units. Satellite transmitters on some individuals will help track the most important conflict areas, and nest guarding measures, such as winter feeding and artificial nests, will help ensure successful breeding. It is hoped that these measures will increase populations by more than 10% and increase the number of breeding pairs to over 250 by 2021. 


Life as we know it

So let’s return to the question we started with, the question that has so preoccupied our great thinkers since the dawn of civilisation: what is the meaning of life? Without wanting to dismiss all the wonderful art, literature, music – and school essays – that this question has given rise to, dare I say (in the whispered confessional tones of a ‘former history student-turned-nature writer’) that it’s all rather obvious isn’t it?  LIFE, as we know it here in Europe, is protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil under our feet and the sheer joy of sharing these primal experiences with all those who inhabit this amazing blue planet of ours – be they bird, beast or man.


Gui-Xi Young is the editor of the BirdLife European & Central Asia Newsletter. 

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.

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. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.