Brussels -- I am delighted to be here with you to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Birds Directive and the 10th anniversary of the agreement between BirdLife and FACE. It's excellent to see the hunting community adopting such a pro-active approach to bird conservation and giving such high-profile recognition to the EU nature legislation. So, my thanks to the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE) for having organised this event.
It may seem counter-intuitive to many people, but bird hunting can help in bird conservation efforts. It is no coincidence that the Birds Directive recognizes the legitimacy of sustainable hunting. At the same time, this places a very important responsibility on the hunting community to ensure healthy populations of birds.
Birds, many of which are migratory, are our common heritage. In 1979, the Member States of the EU at the time unanimously adopted the Birds Directive in recognition of the worrying decline and unsustainable use of some bird species. Over the past 35 years, the Birds Directive, together with the Habitats Directive and the LIFE programme, have provided a solid foundation for countries to work together to protect species and habitats of EU conservation concern. These are the cornerstones of EU nature and biodiversity policy.
There is no doubt that the Birds Directive has significantly benefitted Europe's birds. A study published in the journal Science has shown that the Directive made a significant difference in protecting many of Europe's most threatened birds from further decline, and there have been real success stories in the recovery of different species populations. We need to build on these successes.
The Natura 2000 network features nearly 5,500 Special Protection Areas specifically for birds, covering over 12% of EU land area, and including almost 1,000 sites at sea.
Natura 2000 is of course as much about people as it is about nature. A key principle underpinning the network is ensuring that conservation and sustainable use go hand in hand with benefits to local communities, as well as to the wider economy.
I appreciate that FACE has supported the Commission in its efforts to implement the Birds Directive. For instance, FACE in partnership with BirdLife International, has actively contributed to the Sustainable Hunting Initiative.
But I hope you will agree that the job is far from complete. Many Special Protection Areas are in poor condition, and in need of restoration, active management and funding. The latest reports produced by Member States on the status of Europe's bird populations show that many bird species are still in danger.
Member States have committed at the highest political level to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and of ecosystem services by 2020: a commitment that is reflected in the EU Biodiversity Strategy. This strategy includes the goal of achieving a significant improvement in the status of birds. This is an enormous challenge, which can only be achieved through the combined efforts of all stakeholders. Hunters have a key role to play in achieving this goal.
Why are so many bird populations still not doing well? I am sure that the hunting community will agree with me on the main threats: land fragmentation, urbanization, habitat deterioration such as the destruction of wetlands, farming conditions including the use of pesticides and monoculture, fishing by-catch, high levels of predation, and of course, climate change. Hunting can, if it is not practiced in a sustainable way, add to these pressures.
So, hunting can be part of the solution, but also in some cases, part of the problem, for instance when it is unsustainable. I'm convinced that by working together, we can really make sure it is contributing 100% to the winning team. Let me put forwards some thoughts.
Firstly, it is essential that we continue our efforts to build trust between the hunting community and nature NGOs. After all, they share the same long-term goal of achieving healthy bird populations. The outcome of the Sustainable Hunting Initiative, such as the 10-point agreement signed by BirdLife and FACE in 2004, whose 10th anniversary we are celebrating today, is an excellent example of what constructive dialogue between stakeholders can achieve.
This dialogue needs to be strengthened, in particular at the level of the Member States. It is crucial that the leaders of national or regional hunting organizations and bird protection associations understand that it is in their interest to work together. Co- operation can start with the ones most willing to do so.
Secondly, since monitoring of bird species and the hunting take is of paramount importance to ensure sustainable management, especially for migratory species, hunters should be encouraged to play a more active role in supporting coordinated monitoring schemes in Europe. They could also further strengthen their efforts to assess the sustainability of hunting different species, especially those that are in an unfavourable status.
Thirdly, we have to recognise that in some cases where ecosystems are already heavily deteriorated, it may be necessary to limit or even stop hunting for a period of time, to allow the habitat to recuperate. I know this has already been done in some cases, and I also know it is a solution that is not always easy to accept. But ultimately, it is one that can benefit the hunting community, just as allowing fish stocks to recuperate benefits fishermen in the longer term.
Fourthly, although I firmly believe that hunting can be compatible with conservation efforts, unsustainable hunting and illegal killing and trapping are undeniable problems in several regions in Europe. These activities undermine the rule of law and also undermine the provisions of the legislation which allow for derogations. It is already difficult to explain to the public why certain derogations are allowed. If, on top of it, the public sees that illegal activities go on in parallel -- even if they are carried out by a very small minority -- they tarnish the image of hunters everywhere and call into question the effectiveness of our entire approach to nature conservation.
I personally receive letters and messages on a daily basis from citizens across Europe, who are alarmed by reports that such activities continue to take place, sometimes in their own backyards. And sometimes in the name of 'tradition'.
Here is a question that merits some reflection: is it easier to change the traditional practices of a small minority, or to try and convince the vast majority that such practices are acceptable – legally or otherwise?
We count on hunting associations to help Member States and local enforcement authorities to fight against illegal activities, and to continue participating in constructive initiatives in this field, as FACE has been doing for many years.
I would like to close by noting that last June, in this very building, I witnessed the signing of an agreement among eight stakeholder organizations on the key principles of engagement in the activities of the Platform on Large Carnivores – an initiative launched under my auspices. I encourage you to continue to engage constructively in this dialogue.
Large carnivore populations are recovering. This is something Europe can be really proud of. We are the only region in the world where the status of large carnivore species is not getting worse, but is actually improving. And we have our nature legislation to thank.
Ladies and gentlemen, I've set out what I see as the key challenges for the future, which require the active engagement of the hunting community. I am convinced that our respective goals will be easier to achieve if we all work together in mutual understanding and co-operation.
I wish you all the very best as you go forward down this path, and I wish you 35 more years of success -- at least!