Autumn is promising to be just as wonderful as this year’s spring and I have been grabbing any opportunity to get out.  While we continue to live in a time of corona with all the associated uncertainty and anxiety, once again nature is providing solace as we can be restored by the sight of trees turning, fungi flourishing and bird migration in full swing as our summer visitors pour south and we welcome those from coming from the north.  It is another reminder that our nature is shared nature and just how important international conservation efforts are for these ‘birds without borders’.

So today, it feels right to share some news about our work across the European-African flyway.

First, some good news which emerged last week from France.  Earlier in the summer, we asked for your help in supporting our French BirdLife Partner LPO tackle unsustainable hunting of turtle doves in their country.   The French government’s public consultation received over 19,000 responses, of which LPO reported 77% were against the proposal to allow just under 18,000 doves to be hunted.  At the end of August, France announced that it was banning the use of ‘lime-sticks’ for bird hunting in France for at least one year (an issue long campaigned for by LPO).

But then - on the eve of the turtle dove hunting season – France announced that the quota would be set – as proposed – at 17,460 doves.  This was continued bad news for turtle dove, but then, just two weeks later – after many birds had already been shot, on 11 September, the Council of State suspended the turtle dove hunting season with immediate effect, following a legal challenge from LPO.  Still not the complete Europe-wide moratorium being demanded by BirdLife partners and the European Commission, before a properly sustainable hunting management system is developed, but another significant reduction in the number of birds being killed. I think we can be confident that the strong public response against continued turtle dove hunting in France in breach of the EU Birds Directive helped sway this decision. So, thank you to those that contributed and raised the volume on this – you have made a difference.  And many congratulations to the persistence and brilliance of LPO.

In Spain, as I reported last month, the turtle dove hunting effort this year was also greatly reduced, being permitted on fewer days (two weekends only) and for fewer hours – also the result of combined pressure by the European authorities and the Spanish BirdLife Partner, SEO/BirdLife. So there are real signs of hope for Europe’s beleaguered turtle doves – and those of course include ‘ours’ nesting in the UK. 

But in Portugal, our migratory waterbirds are facing an imminent threat that will have repercussions on migratory waterbirds shared with countries all along the East Atlantic Flyway. The Portuguese government has announced its intention to permit the construction of an international airport at the heart of the largest wetland in the country - the Tagus estuary. The Tagus supports 300,000 migratory waterbirds using the flyway, connecting Arctic and temperate breeding areas to wintering areas in Africa. These numbers put it in the same league as some of the UK’s best coastal wetlands for waterbirds: The Wash, Morecambe Bay or the Ribble Estuary. Up to 80,000 black-tailed godwits (listed by IUCN as globally ‘Near Threatened’), which breed in Iceland, the UK, the Netherlands and other northern European countries, use the Tagus each year to feed and rest during the non-breeding season. The proposed airport would undermine the investments that have been made in many countries for the conservation of these birds, for example here in the UK, Project Godwit.

Black-tailed godwits spiralling into a rice field in the Tagus Estuary (photo courtesy of Jan van de Kam)

A letter published today in Science, by José Alves, Conservation Ecologist at University of Aveiro and Maria Dias, Marine Science Coordinator at BirdLife International, highlights threats posed by this development, and the contradiction between this proposed airport and the current drive to move the economies of European countries to more sustainable models of growth. You can read more in today’s science blog.

RSPB will be watching this situation, supporting our Portuguese BirdLife partner SPEA with evidence and technical expertise, and may well come back and ask for your direct support if this threat persists.  Building a new airport on an internationally important coastal wetland appears to tick all the boxes of what NOT to do, in order to Revive Our World.