Today, I am delighted to welcome my former RSPB colleague,  Alistair Gammell. Alistair worked for the RSPB for three decades including as our first International Director.  Amongst his many achievements, he played a key role in shaping the EU Directives.  These critical laws that are now under threat.  In this guest blog, he outlines why the laws were created.

Was the Birds Directive, and later the Habitats Directive adopted as some would have you believe because super-crazed Eurocrats couldn’t resist interfering with nature conservation policies that were clearly working well without their interference? Or was it because increasing bird shooting and trapping, combined with increasing habitat destruction, was unsustainable and posed an ever growing threat to Europe’s migrant birds, whose life-patterns know no boundaries?

In the 1970s bird-killing in Europe wasn’t just a few people carrying out some occasional arcane traditional practice, but it was a sustained massacre in which many hundreds of millions of birds, common and rare, were being killed annually in Europe.

To increase the numbers they killed, hunters were travelling to the best places for birds, and using the latest technology, such as repeating shotguns, mist nets, tape recordings of calls to lure in flocks. Indiscriminate means such as bird-lime and traps were commonplace, as was hunting in many areas in all seasons, including in spring, as birds struggled back to Europe to breed.

At the same time, Europe’s landscapes were being transformed by increased urbanisation, more intensive farming, pollution, and the use of pesticides, so Europe’s birds had less and less suitable habitat available to breed.

European citizens, recognising Europe’s birds were in trouble and that the threats to them were not only international and beyond the control of any single government, but in many cases were exacerbated by EU policies, demanded Europe-wide action to protect our natural heritage and to reduce the killing of birds to a sustainable level. Since then the threats from increasing urbanisation, intensive land use and bird hunting have not gone away, indeed they are more intense than ever. So the requirement for international action to protect birds remains and is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

The Directives were framed with reasonableness in mind. They do not make the law, but just set agreed minimum standards and then leave it to individual EU governments to implement these in the way they think best. The Directives require that the most threatened species be given special protection and the most important places in Europe for birds and other wildlife be given special protection. That seems important and sensible.But the special protection for species and places is not made absolute.

National Governments can grant exceptions (called derogations) if they need to, but when doing so, they need to demonstrate they have looked at other solutions and show that these alternatives were not satisfactory.  

Again this seems perfectly reasonable. Wouldn’t we really want people who were proposing to damage or destroy a national treasure – for that is what these rare birds or important places for wildlife are - to have thought twice and to show they have looked at alternatives and rejected these for rational reasons? And these EU policies have worked. Rare species are proven to have been better off because of the Birds Directive, and bird killing, though still unfortunately still too widespread, has declined.

But of course some people are stopped from doing whatever they want - that is what laws do and we should be glad of it. Governments and developers actually have to show that alternative and less damaging solutions are not possible. Hunters cannot just kill protected species. Hurrah to that.

Nothing has changed since the 1970s except that today Europe’s wildlife is even more threatened and needs the protection afforded by these directives even more than ever.

With due deference to Franklin Roosevelt, I have unashamedly adapted one of his quotes which to me sum up why these Directives are needed and must remain strong.

It is our European landscapes and nature, our European languages and European culture that make Europe different and our home. We should cherish its natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for our children and our children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin our continent of its beauty, its riches or its romance.

If you haven’t already you can act now to defend nature, by taking just a few minutes to respond to the EU consultation on the future of the Nature Directives. Over 283,000 people already have – making this the biggest ever response to an EU consultation! Join this movement and let EU leaders know that you won't tolerate of weakening of our most important laws for wildlife.

  • Very well said.The Birds and the Habitats Directives are vital to nature and its well being..

  • There is an urgent need for reform in Europe - but it is to the CAP not the conservation directives. In contrast to the Bird & Habitat directives, the CAP is vastly expensive ( spending an amount of money that on its own could rescue Greece) and failing in virtually all its objectives - even in supporting better off farmers. Probably the main thing it is doing is subsidising the supermarkets, whilst alongside the USA's equally extravagant subsidies one wonders just how devastating this unfairly cheap first world food is to developing countries.

    If Europe really wanted to achieve sustainable economic gain it should not necessarily be removing this money, rather directing it away from the intensive farming that on top of the direct payments is causing massive collateral damage - to wildlife, to water, both quality & flooding, to carbon - especially on the peatlands of the UK uplands. It should be directed in exactly the opposite direction: paying to increase resilience in the face of climate change, reduce pollution and pesticide use and extending the success of our protected areas like Natura 2000 to the wider European countryside.