Way back in 1979 the European Union, under pressure from the UK Government adopted the Birds Directive. This early piece of environmental legislation required all member states to offer basic protection to wild birds across the continent.  As part of this, each country was asked to designate “Special Protection Areas”; places of importance for breeding, migrating and wintering birds of significant conservation concern. The grand design was that, properly identified, SPAs would form a natural and coherent network of places with higher levels of protection. A black-tailed godwit for instance, from it’s breeding grounds through it’s migratory stop off points to its winter estuaries might never have to step foot off a Special Protection Area.

Curlew - credit RSPB Images

These places became the jewels in the crown of European bird protection and their existence over the past forty years has probably done more to protect birds than any other piece of legislation. They are something we can be proud of in Europe.

However, times change. New threats emerge, and species once common become scarcer. And of course, the political landscape is constantly shifting. Eight years ago, a review into UK SPAs began, and three years ago today experts (RSPB included) published findings that identified all the inadequacies in the current network. 

In essence, while the SPA network across the continent is something we can indeed be proud of, the UK, not to put too fine point on it, has consistently fallen short in the levels of enthusiasm shown by our European friends. 

For example, currently there are no SPA’s in the UK for several species that breed and winter here that are identified in the Birds Directive as being of conservation concern. Curlew populations in England for instance are precarious, and yet there are no SPA’s for breeding curlew.  Montagu’s Harrier and spoonbill are two further examples where the English network does not provide protection. Then, where we do have them for priority species, our existing UK SPA network is simply not good enough for 87 of them. And, we also need a lot more marine SPAs, to protect the feeding grounds of popular but troubled birds such as puffin, and the UK’s only critically endangered bird, the Balearic shearwater. This is something we have been wanting for well over a decade.  

In general, it is also worth bearing in mind that the UK has one of the lowest proportions of our land designated as SPA compared to other EU states.    

The panel of experts made these points, and more, as part of the review and these were accepted by the UK Government and published back in October 2016. However, since then, we have seen no action from Government to address these gaps. This is particularly concerning because we are still waiting for the implementation of many of the actions from the review prior to this one in 2001.

Earlier this month, in the run up to the three-year anniversary of the publication of the review, we wrote to DEFRA to ask for a firm commitment to the publication advice and recommendations made and a clear timetable for implementation of the review.

If Government is truly committed to nature in the UK, and the ambition of it’s own 25 year plan for the environment, it can do better than this.