The EU Nature Directives

20 April 2016 | Posted in Tony Whitbread , Referendum
The EU Nature Directives
Dartford warbler / Paul Roberts

Dr Tony Whitbread

Chief Executive

The oldest piece of European Union environmental legislation is the ‘Birds Directive’. This dates back to 1979 and was implemented in the UK through the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act. It was joined in 1992 by the ‘Habitats Directive’. Together they are often now referred to as the ‘nature directives’ and are the only EU laws specifically designed to safeguard wildlife.

The nature directives target species and habitats which are most threatened at European level, including migratory birds which by their nature require an international approach to protecting the sites and habitats which ensure their survival. The two key mechanisms deployed through these laws are:

  • Establishing a cohesive network of protected sites (Special Protection Areas –SPAs, under the Birds Directives; Special Areas of Conservation –SACs, under the Habitats Directive) across the Member States; and
  • Requiring the strict protection of species from deliberate or negligent actions which would harm them or their important habitats (for all species in the case of birds; for a defined list of other animals and plants)

It’s clear to me that over the years the nature directives have been extraordinarily useful to the work of Sussex Wildlife Trust. The well-defined and well-tested protection afforded to SPAs and SACs is vitally important in safeguarding specific localities which are of national and local significance to wildlife as well as protecting the ‘European wildlife features’ for which they are designated. And the tag of ‘European Protected Species’ EPS carries a significant advantage when faced with developments which could have a seriously detrimental effect on wildlife and habitats outside the network of SPAs and SACs.

For example, Wealden District Council is currently inviting tenders for a piece of work to devise an ‘Ashdown Forest monitoring strategy and visitor survey’.[1] Why? It’s all down to the Birds Directive. The 3,207 hectare Ashdown Forest has been classified by the UK as a SPA for its populations of breeding Dartford warblers and nightjars. A key risk to these birds, which nest on or close to the ground, is disturbance in the breeding season from informal recreation: walkers, and in particular walkers exercising their dogs off the lead. Such unintentional recreational disturbance can result in nest failure and population decline, so the local authority has included strategic provisions in their Local Plan to reduce the potential impact.

It’s hard to imagine that, with the best will in the world, Wealden District Council would be paying quite as much attention as it is to the fortunes of the Dartford warblers and nightjars of Ashdown Forest if it wasn’t for the EU Birds Directive. This is a specific example of European Union policy and legislation that influences the charitable objectives of the Sussex Wildlife Trust. In this instance, the effect is positive, with public authorities having clear duties under the Birds Directive to put in place measures that will help to secure populations of scarce breeding birds and their habitats for the future.

In the event of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, then the nature directives will no longer apply. We will, of course, still have domestic legislation to protect wildlife (the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act, the 2000 Countryside & Rights of Way Act and the 2006 Natural Environment & Rural Communities Act etc.). The key question will be, what guarantee is there that remaining laws protecting nature will be enhanced to fill the gap left by the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive or will the Government choose to weaken domestic legislation?

I’ll be exploring this and other aspects of the nature directives in the next couple of blogs.

Visit our EU Referendum and Sussex wildlife webpage

[1] ESPH SB Ashdown Forest Special Protection Area (SPA) Monitoring Strategy and Visitor Survey (ESPH132) Reference: WDC-006533


  • Jackie Fyers:

    22 Apr 2016 08:41:17

    If those are the only two wildlife directives from the EU in 37 years it is clearly not a high priority and we would be better to energise our own protection programme.
    If we leave the EU there is no reason to think we would be unable to calculate and implement a strong policy. The UK are forerunners in wildlife protection and we have the national intent. Meanwhile, the EU can concentrate their energies on enforcing the banning of Malta’s barbaric Spring sport of shooting anything on the wing.

  • Edward Dawson:

    04 May 2016 09:52:01


    You are right about the EU Directives. This was done to show the EU (EC) had a human face. There is very little interest in protecting habitats. Indeed, the habitats section was inserted by the UK ( adviser Stanley Cramp). We would do better out of the EU. Edward

  • sally:

    12 Jun 2016 10:13:30

    With these EU directives in place – I do wonder how some countries in Southern Europe get away with placing food down covered in adhesive to entrap migrating birds, thousands of birds are ending up on local dinner plates!

  • Kiersten:

    16 Jun 2016 14:52:16

    I could not refrain from commenting. Well written!

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