Following on from the tremendous public response to the consultation on the future of the Nature Directives, in which 520,325 people told European leaders not to weaken them – I’m delighted to welcome Dr Paul Donald, Principle Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, to talk about his latest research that proves just how effective the Birds Directive is.

The European Union is under pressure like never before. Growing discontent about being “ruled” from Brussels and the threat of a Greek exit from the Eurozone have raised questions about what the EU is really good for. Well, here is one thing it is good for: conserving wildlife. A bold claim, but one we can now prove. But first, a little background. All Member States of the EU have to adopt two world-leading pieces of conservation legislation – the 1979 EU Birds Directive and the 1992 EU Habitats Directive. These Directives place a responsibility on all members of the EU, ourselves included, to protect the most threatened species and the most important sites, and together they form the cornerstone of EU conservation policy. The Directives set common standards and common goals that all countries must achieve, thus uniting and strengthening conservation policy across the 4 million square kilometres and 500 million people of the EU.

But do they actually work? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. For example, how can we tell how well species are doing, when information on their numbers is so sparse? And how is it possible to isolate the contribution of the Directives when there are so many other changes buffeting wildlife populations, such as a warming climate? In the case of the Birds Directive, however, we have been able to address these problems.

In a paper published today in the journal Conservation Letters, by scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, BirdLife International and Durham University, we analysed the long-term and short-term population trends of all Europe’s bird species using a new dataset collected as part of EU members’ reporting requirements under the Directives (much of it by thousands of volunteers across Europe, so a great example of the power of citizen science). Our aim was to assess whether species identified by the Birds Directive as being of particular concern and therefore requiring special conservation measures, so-called Annex I species, have fared any better than species not listed on Annex I - while at the same time accounting for the impacts of other factors such as climate change, migration strategy and habitat preference.

The results were unequivocal – no matter how hard we tried to find other explanations for the patterns we found, we could not escape the conclusion that Annex I species have done very significantly better than the average. Furthermore, they have done better in countries that have been in the EU, and so under the protection of the Directive, for longer. Good news indeed that we have in place an international conservation policy that actually works for our more threatened species, but there is, inevitably, a cloud on the horizon.

At the request of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, the Directives are currently being subjected to a detailed review. Many conservationists see this review as a prelude to weakening the Directives. It would be utterly perverse if this were to happen when we now have such strong scientific evidence that these may be among the most successful international conservation agreements anywhere in the world.

Dr Paul F Donald, Principal Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

  • Hi Ian,

    520,325 signatures is three times bigger than any similar consultation run by the European commission and there was a short time to reply.

  • 520,325 is not even 1 million. Considering the UK's population is more than 50-60 million in all. The number throughout the European community is abysmal and small from the UK alone, let alone Europe. I thought there would have been millions upon millions signing throughout Europe. I signed. But all I can say I'm most disappointed by the number of people that signed, considering as well that there are over 1 million members of the RSPB alone and lots of the members haven't signed. I don't think it bodes very well.