Twenty Years of the Habitats Directive - A Case Study on Species Reintroduction, Protection and Management

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Keywords: Reintroduction of a species, effective national management strategies, Habitats Directive

Abstract: Reintroduction of species is viewed as a conventional conservation tool across Europe. Yet, the reintroduction of a species into an area where it was formerly extinct in a country can involve considerable social and economic impacts. Effective national management strategies for European protected species must comply with the protection laid down in the Habitats or Birds Directives whilst, at the same time, addressing human socio-economic concerns. This case study on the Eurasian beaver (listed in Habitats Directive Annexes II and IV) examines the strict protection afforded to the beaver (Article 12) and the ways in which exceptions to that protection, or derogations (Article 16), may form part of national or regional species management strategies. Case studies from the Netherlands, Germany and Latvia illustrate conservation success but, at the same time, provide a cautionary tale about the management of a species with a well developed capacity for ecosystem engineering. What happens when a previously extinct or endangered species with the potential for impacts on human activities becomes abundant? While national law and policy makers must remain attentive to conservation concerns, ensuring the strict protection of the species, they must also be mindful of changes both in human political and socio-economic concerns and in the dynamic natural world. Twenty years on, is the protection afforded by the Habitats Directive sufficiently pragmatic and flexible to take account of changes in species conservation status and in the social, political and economic needs of Member States?

INTRODUCTION

According to the European Commission, biodiversity loss is 'the most critical global environmental threat alongside climate change'. The protection of biodiversity in the EU is largely achieved through the Habitats and Birds Directives.2 These provide a framework for the conservation of European protected species and their habitats, as well as providing a network of protected sites of particular European interest. The directives share a similar conceptual framework and common objectives. Each aims to deliver the two pillars of habitat and species protection (involving both maintenance and restoration of habitats and species), whilst permitting Member States to take account of their own economic, social and cultural requirements (as well as regional and local characteristics) in the implementation of these protective frameworks.3 This article provides a case study on species protection under the Habitats Directive highlighting the challenges of ensuring strict species protection and, at the same time, accommodating the social and economic needs of Member States.

The Eurasian beaver is a Habitats Directive Annex IV-listed species which receives special, strict protection under Article 12 of the directive as a species of 'Community interest'.4 These are defined as species which are endangered, rare or endemic but requiring particular attention.5 This system of strict protection involves prohibitive and preventative measures, which must be backed up by effective monitoring and enforcement at national level.6 Exceptions are only permitted in the circumstances prescribed by Article 16. As a result of the characteristics of the species and the strict protection afforded to it, the story of the beaver is a contradictory one. It is a conservation success, but it illustrates the challenges of managing a potentially high impact species within the constraints of the Habitats Directive. It is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, as Europe's most widely reintroduced species, the beaver provides a useful example of the complex legal and practical management challenges surrounding reintroductions.7 Secondly, it aptly illustrates the tension between the strict protection of species and the social, environmental and economic realities of species management for Member States. This tension is particularly heightened where, as in the case of the beaver, the protected species is relatively abundant. Further, while there has already been considerable discussion of the management of protected large carnivores across Europe,8 highlighted by some important case law,9 there has been little discussion of the management of other large mammals, such as the beaver.

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