Research confirms the EU Nature Directives help the UK meet its international nature conservation commitments

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Research confirms the EU Nature Directives help the UK meet its international nature conservation commitments

  • Comments 4
  • Likes

Earlier this year I pointed out to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee that comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment, together with a robust and enforceable governance framework, are essential.

As the spring migration season demonstrates – nature does not respect borders. In fact, as you read this, I shall be up in the Cairngorms with the family hopefully showing my children one of our most charismatic migrants – the osprey.

Chris Gomersall's fabulous image of an osprey in flight (

The question of how the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns would ensure an enforceable, international approach to nature conservation, whatever the result of the EU referendum vote, is a key element of the challenge we issued to both last month. You will be able to read the responses from both camps very soon.

The need for a coordinated international approach to nature conservation was a driving force behind the adoption of the 1979 EU Birds Directive and the 1992 EU Habitats Directive (the Nature Directives). The Nature Directives place a responsibility on all members of the EU, including the UK, to protect the most threatened species and the most important sites, and together they form the foundation of nature conservation across the EU.

Regular readers will know that the two Nature Directives are currently the subject of a Fitness Check, launched by the European Commission, intended to assess whether they are fit for purpose. We are currently awaiting the final results of the Fitness Check, and although the evidence gathering phase of this process is concluded, RSPB scientists have produced further evidence of the importance of these groundbreaking laws.

In July last year, I welcomed my colleague Dr Paul Donald (here), Principle Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, to talk about research he had done into how effective the Birds Directive is for nature conservation. His research confirmed that in the Birds Directive we have an international conservation policy that actually works for our more threatened species.

Well Paul is not a man to rest on his laurels. He has been doing further research to help answer one of the key questions posed by the Commission for the Fitness Check, “How coherent are the Directives with international and global commitments on nature and biodiversity?”

In a paper recently published in the journal Conservation Letters, by scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, we have analysed the contributions of the Nature Directives to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and other Multilateral Environmental Agreements. You can read the paper here.

The findings demonstrate the importance of the Nature Directives for fulfilling the UK’s international obligations. For example the Natura 2000 network makes a very significant contribution to achieving the CBD target to protect 17% of terrestrial areas, while EU species protection rules help achieve the target to prevent the “extinction of known threatened species”, and ensure that their “conservation status... has been improved”, as well as contributing to wildlife conservation objectives under other international agreements.

The impacts of the Nature Directives extend beyond just nature conservation; as 65% of EU citizens live within 5 km of a Natura 2000 site, and 98% within 20 km, these sites have the potential to raise awareness of biodiversity and to deliver ecosystem services to a high proportion of the EU’s population.

Indeed evidence submitted to the Fitness Check confirms that Natura 2000 sites are estimated to receive between 1.2 and 2.2 billion visitor days each year, and offer the opportunity for greater engagement by the public and stakeholder groups (landowners, hunters, farmers etc.) in nature conservation, as well as supporting the growth of volunteer networks of site support groups and citizen scientists.

Some of RSPB’s most visited reserves, Titchwell and Minsmere, are part of the Natura 2000 network, as are many of our other reserves. Achievements like this are worth celebrating, and hot on the heels of the Natura 2000 award given to RSPB’s Dove Stones last week, RSPB’s Futurescapes project is in line to receive a LIFE Nature and Biodiversity award as part of the Green Week celebrations which take place this week in Brussels and across Europe.

You can read more about Futurescapes here and about Green Week 2016 here.

Paul Donald’s research also confirms that the Nature Directives are helping to achieve climate change mitigation targets by storing carbon. Estimated below and above ground carbon stocks per unit area in Natura 2000 sites are 43% higher than the average across the rest of the EU.

Of course, it is impossible to say what the EU would have been like without the Nature Directives, but there is ample evidence that they have yielded additional benefits over and above what would have been expected. For example, over 50% of Natura 2000 sites are not covered by any other form of protected area designation. Countries that have joined the EU show substantial increases in their coverage by protected areas around the time of accession, and increases in the populations of target species post-accession. Even in the UK, which has a longer history of conservation legislation than most countries, the Institute for European Environmental Policy has found that “[the] Directives have added a layer of protection for nature ... above and beyond that provided in previous national legislation”.

Other International agreements the Nature Directives help the UK and other EU Member States fulfil include the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention; 1979), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS, or Bonn Convention; 1979) and the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention; 1971).

This research shows that the Nature Directives provide a regulatory framework that, with fuller implementation, will help EU Member States to meet their obligations under the CBD and other international agreements, and lends further weight to calls from RSPB through the #DefendNature campaign, from the BirdLife Europe partnership and other NGO networks involved in the #NatureAlert campaign, as well as from the European Parliament and EU Member States for these Directives to be better implemented.

Of course, the result of the EU referendum could have a significant impact on how international protection for UK birds is delivered in future which is why I encourage you to keep an eye on this blog to find out what both campaigns have to say.

  • I was left completely gobsmacked by the Leave take on nature. Hasn't anyone noticed this Government's record on nature ? Cutting funding curbing and reducing it's own lead agency Natural England, describing nature as 'Green Crap' and trying to (spuriously) blame its protection for stopping growth . Yes, George Eustice, those Directives are certainly 'spirit crushing' if your main aim in life is making money and nature is getting in the way. Don't listen to all the speculation, just look at this Government's record and make up your mind on that and that alone.

  • More excellent research and work by the RSPB which confirms my strong opinion that the Nature Directives and the other associated international agreements are vital to nature conservation both in this country and across Europe. If this country was to very foolishly vote to leave the EU I would not trust our politicians a single inch to keep the Directives or their intent in force. Just look at the recent Walshaw Moor ruling that the UK  Government is not properly enforcing the Habitats Directive in respect to moorland. This is why, for the proper protection of all our wildlife, and for many other important reasons including the economy, it is absolutely critical that we vote to remain within the EU.

  • George Eustice has come out in favour of the Brexit group.In an interview yesterday he is quoted as saying;

    “The birds and habitats directives would go,” he said, referring to two key pieces of European environmental law. “A lot of the national directives they instructed us to put in place would stay. But the directives’ framework is so rigid that it is spirit-crushing."

    Subjected to a Fitness Check by the EC would be of little importance if the Brexiteers have their way.

    Eustice's colleague at the Dept. Rory Stewart, comes out on the other side, just emphasising the split between government ministers.

    A further quote from the Chancellor (a remainer!);

    "The origin of the “fitness check” lies in a domestic review instigated by George Osborne in 2011, when he told parliament that the “gold-plating” of EU habitat rules was imposing “ridiculous costs” on business."

    Pleased to see you are quoted as well Martin, but leave or remain it's all pretty depressing.

    For the full article see here;

  • An excellent example of what the RSPB can and does do correctly.