LIFE and birds: 40 years of the EU Birds Directive

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Yelkouan shearwater chick © 2018 NAT/GR/003221/Jakob Fric 2018. All rights reserved. Licensed to the European Union under conditions

The EU Birds Directive marks its 40th year in 2019. Projects under the LIFE programme have been working to implement the directive and save species since LIFE’s inception in 1992.

The EU Birds Directive is the oldest piece of EU legislation on the environment, and is the basis for much of the EU’s environmental policy. It was adopted in April 1979, and amended in 2009.

The directive emerged from EU countries wanting to work together to address a fundamental fact of birdlife: birds migrate and know no borders. The only way to properly protect species and their habitats is by working across borders – and often beyond the borders of the EU.

It responded to the most serious threats to the conservation of wild birds: illegal persecution, habitat loss and degradation. The law called for co-financing to manage Special Protection Areas dedicated to birdlife protection and conservation.

Trends and reporting

State of Nature in the EU” reports on the conservation status and trends of the species and habitats covered by the 2 EU nature directives, including birds listed in the annexes of the Birds Directive. It is put together from reports which EU countries are required to make every 6 years under Article 12 of the directive.

The report concludes that more than half of all wild bird species assessed (52%) have a secure status. But around 17% of the species are still threatened and another 15% are near threatened, declining or depleted. The next input from EU countries is due in 2019.

Alongside reporting under Article 12 of the Birds Directive, the European Red List provides a review of the status of European species according to IUCN Regional Red Listing guidelines. It identifies those species that are threatened with extinction at European level (Pan-Europe and the European Union) so that appropriate conservation actions can be taken to improve their status. Within the EU 27, 18% of bird species are threatened, with 2% Critically Endangered, 4% Endangered, 12% Vulnerable, and 6% Near Threatened.

Recognising LIFE’s contribution

Since 1992, LIFE projects have helped improve conservation statuses by reversing population declines, and in some cases projects have even brought species back from the brink of extinction.

LIFE projects targeting bird species topped the list between 1992-2017.

Chart showing that LIFE projects targeting bird species topped the list between 1992-2017

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella spoke about the proposed funding increase for LIFE as a result of its achievements.

“The EU Birds Directive, together with the Habitats Directive, is the most ambitious and large-scale endeavour ever undertaken to conserve Europe’s more than 500 wild bird species. I am happy that the LIFE programme has done so much to help preserve them.

“Since its launch, nearly €500 million have gone to projects helping to maintain or improve the conservation status of a wide range of bird species and safeguarding the future of the most threatened ones. Recognising this important contribution, LIFE is among the EU funding programmes for which we have proposed the largest proportional increase under the new EU budget.”

Species highlights

Lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) in Bulgaria

The lesser kestrel was listed as “Extinct as a breeding species” in Bulgaria. LIFE reintroduced chicks born in Spain, and in 2014 this bird species began breeding again in the country after almost 30 years of absence. In 2017, prior to the project's end, the number of lesser kestrels in the newly-established Bulgarian colony exceeded 20 nesting pairs. The bird winters in Africa and migrates to Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. It faces threats including intensive agriculture, loss of nesting sites and pesticides.

Reintroducing kestrels as part of a recovery programme

Azores bullfinch (Pyrrhula murina)

The focus of 4 LIFE projects which have led to a 2-time downgrade in the IUCN Red List category: in 2009 from critically endangered to endangered and in 2016 from endangered to vulnerable. LIFE was crucial in restoring the subtropical forest habitat that supports the species in one island of the Azores archipelago. The 2012 Article 12 report assessed the population as stable in the short term and unknown in the long term.

Recovering the Azores bullfinch population

Great bustard (Otis tarda)

The great bustard population is assessed as ‘increasing’ in both the short- and long-term, thanks to LIFE’s support for extensive grasslands management in Austria. The first of 3 projects started in 2004, and the current project, at the border with Hungary and Slovakia, will wrap up in 2023. The great bustard is one of the world’s heaviest flying birds.

Cross-border protection of the great bustard in Central Europe

Red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis)

A priority for LIFE funding, this is the most threatened goose species in the world, with a status now at Vulnerable. The Red-breasted goose breeds in the Russian tundra and winters in Romania and Bulgaria. LIFE has shed unprecedented light on why birds go missing during migration, with hunters and poachers mostly to blame. Through LIFE, direct killings have been reduced almost to zero, thanks to intensive work with farmers, hunters and public authorities across the migration route.

Safe passage for migrating geese

Yelkouan shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan)

4 LIFE projects - including the current LIFE Arcipelagu Garnija in Malta – have worked to ensure the long-term recovery of this species. The European population is listed on the Red List as vulnerable with an increasing population size. The yelkouan shearwater only breeds in isolated islands of the central and eastern Mediterranean. LIFE secured breeding sites by eradicating rats and providing artificial nests.

Shearwater protection in Malta

Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

6 LIFE projects have contributed to an ‘increasing’ conservation status for Europe’s rarest vulture in both the short- and long term. The bearded vulture is present only in the Alps, the Pyrenees and Andalusia, with isolated populations in Crete and Corsica. Projects such as LIFE GYPCONNECT have had a big impact by setting up breeding and reintroduction programmes. These were coupled with measures to protect the species, including tackling illegal use of poison and insulating electric power lines.

Future international collaboration

A new era in the future of international bird conservation is emerging thanks to continental scale species action plans (SAPs) set up within the LIFE project EuroSAP.

16 species of birds, including the yelkouan shearwater and bearded vulture, have renewed hope under these plans. They are the result of collaboration between over 500 contributions spanning 65 countries in 3 continents. Species action plans will allow these most at-risk birds to be tracked through their entire life cycles, bringing a fuller understanding of their ecology and threats – and the best conservation responses.

Read more about the species action plans or browse the SAP tracking tool.

Related publications

LIFE improves Nature (2019 brochure)

LIFE is good for Nature! (2018 factsheet) [pdf]

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