Oystercatcher flock in flight over water.

What is the Birds Directive?

The Birds Directive deals with conservation of all wild birds in the EU, including marine areas.

The directive

The directive applies to the birds, their eggs, nests and habitats.

It places a broad requirement on Member States to take necessary measures to maintain the populations of all wild birds at levels determined by ecological, scientific and cultural needs. In doing so, Member States must also consider economic and recreational needs.

The Directive divides into two main parts: habitat conservation and species protection.

In summary, it requires Member States to preserve, maintain and re-establish sufficient diversity and area of habitats for all wild birds. 

For certain rare and threatened species, this must involve:

  • Creating protected areas, including Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under Article 4.
  • Appropriate management of habitats both inside and outside protected areas.
  • Re-establishing habitats destroyed and creating new habitats.    

Generally, the Birds Directive also requires Member States to prohibit:

  • The deliberate killing or capture of all species of wild birds that occur naturally in Europe.
  • Damage to nests or eggs.
  • The taking or keeping of eggs.
  • The keeping of birds and the deliberate disturbance of birds particularly during the breeding season.

There are exceptions permitting the hunting of some species, and to protect human interests, such as public health and agriculture.

Brent goose Branta bernicla, flock flying low over wetland, Wallasea Island RSPB reserve, Essex, England

Habitat conservation

Primarily this should involve creating protected areas, appropriate management of habitats both inside and outside protected areas, re-establishing habitats destroyed and creating new habitats.

Article 4 sets out additional special conservation measures. Member States are obliged to take special action for a range of species (which are listed on Annex I), taking account of their likely extinction, vulnerability to changes in their habitats and their rarity. 

In particular, these special measures must include classifying and protecting the most suitable areas for conserving these species on land and sea. These areas are known as Special Protection Areas and form part of the ‘Natura 2000’ network of protected sites, which also includes Special Areas of Conservation designated under the EU Habitats Directive.

Special measures must also be taken for regularly occurring migratory bird species. In doing so, Member States should take into consideration the breeding, moulting and wintering areas, as well as staging posts along the migration route. Particular attention must be given to protecting wetlands, especially those of international importance.

Wetland grasses

Species conservation

There are exceptions. Certain species, listed in Annex II may be hunted, if national legislation of the Member State concerned permits it. 

Species on Annex II/I may be hunted throughout Europe; species on Annex II/II may only be hunted in named States. 

However, hunting may only be carried out where it does not jeopardise conservation efforts anywhere in the distribution area of the species, and follows the principle of ‘wise use and ecologically balanced control of the species concerned’. 

The Directive also requires Member States to prohibit hunting during the rearing season, reproductive season – and for migratory species – the period of return migration (ie spring shooting is prohibited). It also places strict controls on the sale, transport for sale, keeping and offering for sale of live or dead birds, or their parts or derivatives.

Article 9 of the Directive allows Members States to permit exceptions from these provisions in certain circumstances: for public health and safety, and air safety; to prevent serious damage to crops and livestock, fisheries and water; for the protection of flora and fauna; for the purposes of research. 

It also allows, under strictly supervised conditions and on a selective basis, the capture, keeping or other judicious use of birds in small numbers. These ‘derogations’ are only permitted where there is no other satisfactory solution, and annual reports on their use have to be made to the European Commission to check that their use is compatible with the Directive. 

Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, male resting, Caledonian pine forest, Scotland

In the UK

For more than 10 years, the principle vehicle for implementing the Birds Directive (in terms of site protection and species protection) was the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), the Nature Conservation & Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 in Northern Ireland. 

However, the Countryside & Rights of way Act 2000 and the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 have significantly changed the protection regime afforded to SSSIs in England and Wales, and ASSIs in Northern Ireland. The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Bill should greatly improve the protection and management of SSSIs in Scotland.

Bell heather Erica cinerea, on Dunnet Head RSPB reserve, Caithness, near Thurso, Scotland