The EU Directive 79/409/EEC on the Conservation of Wild Birds, 1979 (Birds Directive) requires the protection of all species of wild birds and their eggs, nests and habitats that are native to the European territory of the EU member states. It also regulates the exploitation of these birds.
The Wild Birds Directive is the EU's earliest example of nature conservation, which provides for a comprehensive scheme of protection for Europe's wild bird species. It has been modified by the EU's Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna). Several components make up the protection scheme under the Wild Birds Directive. One is habitat conservation. A second component consists of a set of prohibitions on direct threats to birds (such as deliberate destruction of nests and eggs) as well as associated activities such as trade in live or dead birds. A third comprises rules on hunting, which limit the species which can be hunted, the periods during which they can be hunted and the methods of hunting them. For both the second and third components, it is possible to have derogations, but derogations must meet strict requirements.
Member states shall take measures to preserve, maintain or re-establish a sufficient diversity and area of habitats for all species of birds referred to in Annex I (which lists 175 species). The categories of species are: (1) species in danger of extinction; (2) species vulnerable to specific changes in their habitat; (3) species considered rare because of small populations or restricted local distribution; (4) other species requiring particular attention for reasons of the specific nature of their habitat.
The Directive also includes a requirement for Member States to classify a network of protected areas (known as special protection areas or SPAs) for the most threatened species. Within SPAs, bird habitats must be protected from deterioration. The Directive also requires habitat conservation measures outside SPAs.
In general, the Directive requires member states to prohibit the deliberate killing or capture of all species of wild birds naturally occurring in their European territories, the damaging of nests or eggs, the taking or keeping of eggs, the keeping of birds and the deliberate disturbance of birds, particularly during the breeding season. However, there are a few exceptions to these requirements, namely regarding the hunting of species listed in Annex II and regarding the sale, transport for sale, keeping for sale and offering for sale of live or dead birds listed in Annex III.
For the protection, conservation and restoration of biotopes and habitats, the following measures should be taken: (1) the creation of protected areas; (2) upkeep and management in accordance with the ecological needs of habitats inside and outside the protected zones; (3) the restoration of destroyed biotopes; (4) the creation of biotopes.
The Directive imposes legal obligations on member states to maintain populations of naturally occurring wild birds at levels corresponding to ecological requirements, to preserve a sufficient diversity and area of habitats for their conservation, to regulate trade in birds (including their parts and products), to limit hunting to species able to sustain such exploitation and to prohibit certain methods of capture and killing. Exceptions are only allowed in limited circumstances. Since 1994, compensatory measures have also been required.
The Directive is legally binding on the EU member states. They are obliged to send the European Commission all information necessary for it to perform a coordinating role in ensuring that the SPAs (established for Annex I species) and the areas for regularly occurring migratory species form a coherent whole. Member states shall bring into force the laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to comply with the Directive within two years of its notification and shall notify the Commission accordingly. They should also draw up a report on the implementation of the national measures taken under the Directive every three years.