The Birds Directive: Progress and Prospects - the Facts

Speech Published 08 Nov 2004 Last modified 16 Oct 2014
Speech to EU Conference "25 years of the Birds Directive", Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands, 8-9 November 2004

Bergen op Zoom, 8 November 2004

The Birds Directive: Progress and Prospects - the Facts

Professor Jacqueline McGlade
Executive Director, European Environment Agency

Speech to EU Conference "25 years of the Birds Directive", Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands, 8-9 November 2004

Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen

We are here today to celebrate 25 years of the European Birds Directive, to review progress and to consider prospects for the future.

I am pleased to be able to present the latest information on progress over these 25 years and to open up the discussion on prospects for the coming years. To do so I will present information on:

  • The historical background
  • Recent progress
  • Birds in the wider environment
  • Lessons from selected emblematic national birds

1. The historical background

It was concern for birds that kick-started the environmental movement in the 1960s following the launch of Rachel Carson's seminal work 'Silent Spring'

Birds are often the first wild animals to draw a child's attention. We are fascinated by the variety, shapes, colours, songs and fast movements of birds from an early age, learning to recognise several different species by the age of 1 or 2 and in many cases maintaining a fascination for birds and a concern for their well-being throughout our lives.

It is therefore no coincidence that birds were at the centre of the first international legislation on nature protection in the Ramsar Convention on wetlands in 1971, and the Bern Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, the Bonn Convention on migratory species and the EU Directive on the conservation of wild birds, all adopted in 1979.

Following dramatic changes in the environment from the 1950s to the 1970s, the European Economic Community was concerned not only about the rapid decline in the numbers of wild birds but also about the 'serious threat to the conservation of the natural environment' and to wider 'biological balances'. Thus, from an early stage in European policy-making, birds have been used as indicators of environmental threats.

2. Recent progress

To assess recent progress I will draw heavily on work coordinated by Birdlife International, which is developing a robust system of data gathering, indicator development and assessment through its network of partner organisations, professional ornithologists, volunteers and enthusiasts across Europe. I will also use the latest information from Wetlands International, and on the extent of Special Protection Areas compiled by the European Environment Agency for this Conference.

The Birds Directive requires Member States to classify Special Protection Areas, manage and conserve the sites classified as Special Protection Areas, take measures to establish a general system of protection for all species of birds within their regulated territory (including eggs, nests and habitats), regulate trade in specified species, regulate the hunting of certain species, and report on the implementation of the Directive. The Birds Directive also helps the European Community fulfil its obligations under the Ramsar Convention.

Classification of Special Protection Areas started slowly with only some 600 sites and 50000 km2 classified by 1991. Following legal action by the Commission in the early 1990s there has been a dramatic increase in the number of classifications and total area covered by 2004 in the EU15 Member States. The 10 new Member States are in the process of classifying their Special Protection Areas, which will provide another substantial leap in coverage.

In 2004 there were over 3600 sites and a total coverage of over 280000 km2, including marine sites. This is about 8 % of the EU15 territory, with individual Member State coverage ranging from less than 2 % in France to over 15 % in Spain.

Does this coverage meet the protection requirements for the specified species?
A definition of sufficiency has not yet been agreed under the Birds Directive. However Birdlife International has developed an inventory of Important Bird Areas and comparisons can be made between the extent of these areas and those of Special Protection Areas. Currently just over 44 % of the Important Bird Area total has been designated as Special Protection Areas in EU15. Several of the new Member States -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- have proposed a significantly larger proportion (around 90 %) of their Important Bird Areas as Special Protection Areas. The other new Member States are listing smaller proportions or have not yet submitted their lists.

In addition, rare and threatened species tend to have higher proportions of their breeding population in Special Protection Areas -- for example many birds of prey; the same applies to colonial species -- for example herons and egrets. More common species or widely distributed ones tend to have a smaller proportion of their breeding population in Special Protection Areas -- for example some warblers.

Even if it is argued that Important Bird Areas overstate the requirements for Special Protection Areas under the Birds Directive there appears to be room for improvement in coverage in most Member States, particularly for the more common or widely distributed species.

Are the Special Protection Areas and their management effective?

Birdlife International has completed for this Conference a second assessment of the population trends and conservation status of birds in Europe from which analyses of the EU15, EU25 and pan-European configurations of countries - and for birds protected and not protected by the Birds Directive - can be extracted.

Agreement has not yet been reached on how to assess favourable conservation status for birds or for other species under the Birds Directive (or the Habitats Directive). However Birdlife International has developed a methodology based on the IUCN Red List criteria for threatened species and the requirements of the Birds Directive. The European Environment Agency has also looked at changes in land cover in and around Special Protection Areas between 1990 and 2000.

These assessments found that:

  • marine, coastal, inland wetland and Mediterranean forest species are increasing in numbers in the EU25 Member States; provisional analyses by Wetlands International indicate that waterbird populations fluctuate less in Special Protection Areas than in other non-classified areas;
  • species listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive and therefore subject to special protection measures did better than non-Annex I species in the EU15 between 1990-2000 as shown by population trends;
  • Annex I species in the EU15 did better than the same species in the non-EU15 countries between 1990-2000 as shown by population trends;
  • most of the 23 Annex I species with a Species Action Plan (supported by the LIFE Nature financial instrument) did better than those without one in the EU15 in the period 1990-2000;
  • illegal trade in wild birds has been almost completely eliminated across the European Union; and
  • preliminary analyses of changes in land cover inside and outside Special Protection Areas between around 1990 and 2000 in Ireland, the Netherlands and Italy suggest that there has been less change inside Special Protection Areas than outside for most of the main habitat classes in these countries.

However the assessments also indicate that:
  • 48 % (216 of 448) of bird species had Unfavourable Conservation Status within the EU25 Member States in 2000; this is a slight improvement on 1990 when 51 % of species were assessed to have Unfavourable Conservation Status;
  • 72 % (126 of 174) of bird species listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive had Unfavourable Conservation Status within the EU25 Member States in 2000; this is similar to the situation in 1990 when 73 % (120 of 164) had Unfavourable Conservation Status;
  • the status of species which are listed in Annex II of the Birds Directive and hence may be hunted appears to have worsened since 1994. 46 % (36 of 79) of these huntable species now have Unfavourable Conservation Status at EU25 level; and
  • farmland birds and long-distance migrants are continuing to decline in numbers in the EU25 Member States.

In summary, the classification and management of Special Protection Areas under the Birds Directive appears to be maintaining habitats and species populations, and producing some improvements in conservation status, in many areas -- in other words the more management in place the better. However this is not the case for farmland birds or long-distance migrants.

What is happening to huntable, long-distance migratory and farmland birds?

An agreement was signed in October 2004 between the Hunters' Association FACE and Birdlife International as part of the European Commission's Sustainable Hunting Initiative. The agreement, inter alia, recognises their mutual interest in implementation of the Birds Directive and of management plans for the huntable species listed in Annex II of the Directive and considered to be in Unfavourable Conservation Status. This should reduce hunting pressure on such species and help restore them to Favourable Conservation Status.

Many long-distance migrants cross the Sahara to reach their wintering grounds. The reasons for the decline are not yet known with any certainty. Perhaps the main threats to these species lie within Europe or elsewhere? Is there more that can be done within the European Union or by the EU in other parts of the world? These questions have not yet been addressed and will need to be considered through inter-continental cooperation, for example through the African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the European Bird Census Council and Birdlife International have developed a biodiversity indicator based on the population trend of representative species of common (not globally threatened) farmland and forest species. Wetlands International is developing a similar indicator for wetland species. Their methodology can be applied at a pan-European, European Union and national level. The indicator has been adopted as the biodiversity indicator within the extended set of structural indicators to be considered by the European Council at its meeting in Spring 2005. So far, the results are qualitatively similar at pan-European and EU levels.

Overall, generalist species numbers have remained fairly stable over the past 20-30 years. Wintering populations of wetland species are stable or increasing, possibly due to the benefits of warmer weather and the management of hunting. Forest species numbers have decreased over the past 20-30 years by about 10-20 %. Farmland species numbers have decreased more dramatically over the past 20-30 years and by up to 60 % for the group of farmland specialists, with larger decreases for some individual species, for example the tree sparrow (Passer montanus), the corn bunting (Miliaria calandra), the skylark (Alauda arvensis) and the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur).

3. Birds in the wider environment

Birds are recognised as good indicators of trends in biological diversity in the wider environment.

However bird indicators are essentially state indicators and should be used in conjunction with other indicators to assess the reasons for favourable and unfavourable trends and to decide on the actions required to improve the status of birds, halt biodiversity loss and improve the general environment.

The European Union has agreed to halt the loss of biological diversity by 2010. To help achieve this target it has adopted a number of objectives and a set of deadline biodiversity indicators. These indicators are based on the list of indicators adopted by the Convention of Biological Diversity in early 2004 (CBD Decision VII/30). The indicators most relevant to the conservation of birds are: trends in abundance and distribution of selected species; change in status of threatened and/or protected species; coverage of protected areas; trends in extent of selected biomes, ecosystems and habitats; area of forest, agricultural, fishery and aquaculture ecosystems under sustainable management; nitrogen deposition; water quality in aquatic ecosystems; number and costs of invasive alien species; impacts of climate change on biodiversity; and connectivity/fragmentation of ecosystems.

These headline indicators are now being tested and developed and the first results are becoming available.

First, there are the trends in extent of selected biomes, ecosystems and habitats, where we have examples from the Corine Land Cover 2000 assessment.

In Ireland there were major net losses of pastures and mixed farmland, and of wetland between 1990 and 2000 amounting to almost 5 % and 8 % of the 1990 total areas respectively. The loss of wetland was mainly over to forest and transitional woodland shrub land. In contrast there have been net increases in artificial surfaces (mainly urban development/infrastructure), arable land and permanent crops, and forest and transitional woodland shrub land within the 10-year period amounting to around 20-35 % in each case. The growth in arable land and permanent crops was mainly at the expense of pastures and mixed farmland, reflecting the intensification of agriculture occurring widely across the European Union. This conversion can be partly explained by the increased practice of keeping livestock under cover and using the land for growing forage.

Second, concerning the area of forest, agricultural, fishery and aquaculture ecosystems under sustainable management.

Sustainable management of these ecosystems - which provide food and other processes - is required to halt the loss of biodiversity in and around such ecosystems. However, there are only limited, fragmented data available currently on the extent of these ecosystems; indeed, it may be easier to show the extent of areas under unsustainable management! The Agency showed recently that in 2000 the growth in the extent of organic farming in the European Union and accession countries had reached 4.4 million hectares within the 31 EEA member countries, although this is still a small percentage of the agricultural land area.

Third, the impacts of climate change on biodiversity

There is strong evidence that a significant amount of the observed recent warming is attributable to human activities, especially to emissions of greenhouse gases. And we are starting to see the impact of warming on many aspects of Europe's environment, as summarised in an EEA report published in August.

These changes will have an effect on bird populations -- sometimes positive, sometimes negative. For example, we can already see that the survival rate of several bird species wintering in Europe has increased over the past few decades. Nevertheless it is not yet possible to determine what impact this increasing (winter) survival will have on bird populations. The higher survival rate clearly affects population demography but the effect on population size is less obvious because of other confounding factors, some of which are also dependent on temperature.

We need to preserve the ecological potential of Europe's land area if we are to be able to adapt effectively to climate change. We can also see the value of protecting and maintaining areas of ecological value, such as wetlands, by preserving surrounding landscapes and by providing corridors for sustaining species that rely on those areas, such as wetland birds.

From the Corine Land Cover 2000 assessment, we can see the potential threats caused by fragmentation across Europe, for example in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Interestingly, when we compare East Germany with Poland we can see a stark difference, with much less fragmentation and urban sprawl in Poland. This type of analysis will help bring different perspectives to future and current discussions between environment and other sectors that are vital in the protection of birds and other components of biodiversity.

4. Lessons from selected emblematic national birds

In preparation for this 25th anniversary celebration, the European Commission invited Member States to select an emblematic national bird species to reflect the different problems that they are addressing in implementing the Birds Directive. It is interesting to analyse and draw lessons from the selection.

I have selected three of the birds chosen for the 25th anniversary celebrations to highlight the pressures and the scope for action, particularly for migratory and/or farmland birds which we see are most under threat. There is also a wealth of material compiled for this Conference from which to draw additional lessons and conclusions.

First we have the little bustard

France selected this bird since it has become their flagship species for conservation in agricultural habitats, following a 20 year decline in breeding populations in areas of intensive agriculture. It is found in Spain and Portugal as well as France and some birds migrate between France and Spain. It is considered vulnerable and hence was given unfavourable conservation status by Birdlife International. Yet in 2004 Special Protection Areas covered only 30 % of the breeding population in EU15 and not quite 60 % in France. A LIFE Nature programme to test different conservation measures reduced the rate of decline but did not halt the decline and a new LIFE Nature project will now try to restore populations in France by releasing captive-bred birds from Spain back into the wild. More will need to be done to extend the Special Protection Areas, improve their management and reduce the pressures from intensive agriculture to maintain these populations by 2010 and beyond.

Second, the pink-footed goose

Belgium selected this migratory bird for the 25th anniversary celebrations. Its favourite wintering grounds in the eastern coastal polder areas were first designated as Special Protection Areas in 1988, monitoring has been carried out since 1959 and they have been protected by a national shooting ban since 1981. Pink-footed geese have shown a steady increase in numbers as well as range as a result of the shooting ban and protection of core grassland areas. However there is now concern that their increased sustenance and survival in the protected grasslands and surrounding fields of Belgium are leading to higher survival rates and over-population in the summer grounds of Svalbard adding to the pressure on the Arctic tundra environment. A project -- FRAGILE -- is underway to assess this apparent development. Monitoring will be required in Belgium and Svalbard as well as in the flyway in between.

Third, the red-backed shrike

Slovenia selected this bird to highlight the fact that it is maintaining populations by preserving large areas of extensively farmed land. The red-backed strike is still a common sight in the Slovenian countryside. Populations are declining in most other European Union countries. Slovenia would like to make use of the EU rural development and agri-environment schemes to maintain extensive farming traditions and avoid increasing the pressures of intensive farming that have contributed to the declines in other countries. Several new Member States have expressed similar concerns and intentions. It will be important to monitor progress in the development of agri-environment schemes, particularly in areas of high nature value farmland as highlighted in the recent joint EEA/UNEP report on this subject.

Most countries have selected large, relatively common, easily recognised birds, visible in open wetland and farmland terrain. Many selected migratory birds. Few selected woodland birds or exceptionally rare birds. It appears therefore that there was a preference for birds that are very attractive and easier to spot and hence to monitor - and that provides us with an opportunity for the future.

Many countries have very active networks of professional and amateur ornithologists which are used to form the basis for the excellent work coordinated by Birdlife International to produce bird indicators and assessments of population trends and conservation status. However there is also a large public interest in this work. Several countries are therefore opening up websites for the general public to gain access to local information and in turn provide information on the environment they observe around them. One such example is the Swedish website artportalen, which was presented to you during the reception yesterday evening.

As we move closer to providing information on the environment at a local scale across Europe such activities and opportunities will need to be taken into the Shared European Spatial Environmental Information Service -- part of the Inspire and Global Monitoring for Environment and Security activities underway in each Member State and being developed by the European Environment Agency in partnerships across the European Union.

I would therefore like to encourage every country to develop a public portal so that those interested in the EU member countries can report sightings of the 25 birds selected for the anniversary celebrations. Each portal could be supported and maintained by the national authority or by a national bird organisation. These portals could also enable observations to be made on progress (and lack of progress) in reducing the threats to these 25 birds, their Special Protection Areas and their wider habitats in order to generate an interest in managing these Special Protection Areas and habitats and help the responsible authorities to halt biodiversity loss in general and bird loss in particular. Through the activities of linking local information to a Europe-wide service, the Agency will be able to provide access across national portals, so that everyone interested can readily track sightings and progress for all 25 birds.


We have 25 years experience with the Birds Directive, 25 Member States and 25 symbolic national birds selected. We now need 25 success stories, one for each bird. However we do not have another 25 years for this success. We need to focus on achieving success with these birds by 2010 as a major contribution to halting biodiversity loss by that date. If we do agree to focus more on birds, we can:

  • learn from the experience of the first 25 years -- Special Protection Areas make a difference, focussed management within Special Protection Areas makes a difference, addressing the pressures in and around Special Protection Areas makes a difference,
  • involve all interested parties -- from site managers through farmers, foresters, hunters and developers to professional ornithologists, bird enthusiasts and the general public, particularly children,
  • improve the monitoring and reporting of the status of birds and their habitats, and of trends in them,
  • contribute to protecting biodiversity more generally, for example through greening of the Common Agricultural Policy, and
  • improve our environment and our own well-being.

We have made some progress in 25 years. However pressures persist and threats continue to worsen in many areas. We will need to work much harder over the next 5 years to achieve the target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010 and we will need more collaboration and agreements to do so - not just with hunters but also with farmers, forest-owners, other land-owners and developers, fishermen, tourist organisations and the widest possible public.

We have the information we need to reach the 2010 target for birds. And, if we achieve the target for birds we may well achieve the targets for other species and for biodiversity as a whole. The Agency in cooperation with all interested organisations and individuals will be monitoring progress and telling people about it. But with only barely five years left to 2010, we have no time to lose!

Thank you for your attention.


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