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Meeting report – Protected bird areas in Europe

Protected bird areas in Europe: selection, management and protection

A joint BOU/JNCC Conference
University of Leicester, 14-16 April 2000
by Nicola Crockford

One hundred delegates from ten countries assembled for a weekend to think about protected areas for birds in Europe, stimulated by a wide-ranging programme drawn together.

The meeting began laughter-muscle-achingly on Friday night with Tony Fox's slide show on how goose field work may damage your health. Displaying a well-developed sense of British bar-room humour, the range of circumpolar toilet facilities was a running theme. It also served to highlight that most of us at the meeting had begun with a passion for birds, even though many of us had outwardly transformed over the years into 'barely literate bureaucrats' (as styled by David Stroud)!

Following our President, Ian Newton's welcome, Sir Angus Stirling, JNCC Chairman, opened proceedings on Saturday morning, promoting co-operation and an international perspective. John Sheail gave a history of protected areas in the UK. It showed how progress, especially in the first half of last century, had been dependent on visionary, energetic individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGO) whose ideas were ultimately taken up by the Government. It is worrying how many of the lessons they pointed out, still haven't been learnt. In the many countries where protected area action is still at the stage where individuals can make a huge difference, lets hope for speedier progress than in the UK during the last century.

Colin Bibby gave the first of a series of useful, strategic talks, five of which were from the BirdLife stable. He reviewed methods of protected area selection, and this was probably the talk most referred to by subsequent speakers. Two RSPB Daves talked: Pritchard on the need to define explicit objectives for networks of protected areas and then to enshrine these in policy and law; and D Gibbons with a talk itemising research needs which he jokingly subtitled 'What did science ever do for protected bird areas?'

Returning to birds themselves, knot-maestro Theunis Piersma gave an entertainingly illustrated talk on his eco-physiological research on long-distance migrants. Goose aficionados got their kicks on Friday thanks to Tony, now it was the turn of the wader fans. For this conference audience, which ranged from stalwart BOU members to bureaucrats, there was universal fascination in such a talk, where international fieldwork and technological wizardry combine to provide completely new knowledge on the life of birds.

Also popular were talks by Les Underhill and Marc Herremans on the South African BIRP (Birds in Reserve Project) and by Martin Flade on the new way of protecting areas in the former East Germany. Both described innovative approaches that were making real progress and proving the maxim that 'bigger is better'. The BIRP, using Les's characteristically natty statistics of Atlas data, had shown that many birds were doing better in larger savannah/woodland reserves and could even determine the minimum suitable reserve size for several species. In Germany, the Federal Government had decided to capitalise on the biodiversity wealth of the dramatically larger scale, less intensively managed landscape of the former East Germany; it set up a relatively well resourced state agency for large scale protected areas in Brandenburg which, in the last ten years has taken truly visionary steps, including legally binding management plans, and effective encouragement for a switch to organic farming.

After lunch a couple of talks focused on particular wetlands: Anky Woudstra on the range of problems facing the Waddensea and Chris Gibson on the challenges and opportunities of managing the Essex estuaries in the face of sea-level rise. David Stroud followed with another of the useful, strategic talks, providing a commentary on the guidelines of the Ramsar Convention for involving local communities in wetland management.

The day's final session was Danish in flavour (appropriate, since Denmark is top of the class for conservation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the EU Birds Directive!). Tony Fox reported on an analysis, using data from Denmark and the UK, to determine how much pintail have benefited from protected areas. Thomas Bregnballe described experiments on the response of wildfowl numbers on reserves to a range of different hunting restrictions.

The BOU AGM was exemplary in lasting only a matter of minutes and so losing us no time in the bar. During the conference dinner, the traditional toast to 'absent Ibises' was particularly poignant for Chris Bowden (RSPB research biologist leading on bald ibis work in Morocco). What about giving other species a turn at future annual dinners?!

The Sunday 9 am 'graveyard' slot went to Micheal O Briain of the European Commission, despite which his talk on SPAs was surprisingly lively and referred to many of the previous talks. Although a Brussels bureaucrat, he began as a goose man. The next speaker, Tim Jones, latterly of the Ramsar Convention, is another example of a bird person turned international bureaucrat who felt that attendance at this ornithological conference was like 'coming home'.

A couple of talks then described the remarkable achievements of two NGO networks. Taej Mundkar, in the second of two non-European insights at the meeting, told us of the exciting progress being co-ordinated by Wetlands International along the Asia-Pacific Waterfowl Flyway. Melanie Heath then reported on BirdLife International's latest outstanding achievement: the publication of the book 'Important Bird Areas in Europe' and associated database, providing staggering amounts of vital data on 3,600 Important Bird Areas.

Mike Smart gave us a portrait of wetland conservation in the Mediterranean, including, depressingly, slides taken by Max Nicholson in the 1970s of wonderful habitats at Lake Ichkeul, Tunisia which have since been destroyed due to dams, despite Ichkeul having every international protection designation in the book – such is the power of the Ministry of Water Resources. Mark Tasker gave the final talk; a thought provoking discussion on marine protected areas for birds including a slide of puffins being barbecued 'to up the number of bird pictures shown at the conference'.

Colin Galbraith, Scottish Natural Heritage and David Stroud had compiled a draft set of conference conclusions from those presented in each talk, and Colin gave a lively and slick Powerpoint presentation of these, with David manning the laptop (there was debate on the backrow as to whether the Powerpoint background they had chosen for the slides represented '”blue sky thinking” clouded with cirrocumulus' or 'blueberry “pie in the sky”'.

Did I have any criticisms of the conference? Well it is regrettable that more speakers did not leave time for discussion, but my main sadness was that not a single eastern European participated, even though the conference identified eastern Europe as a priority for action, given its disproportionately high importance for birds in Europe.

The number of participants in this conference who had undergone the metamorphosis from birder to bureaucrat, I actually take to be a very positive reflection on the ornithological community. It is this trend that perhaps part explains why bird conservation is so much further advanced than that for other taxa. If we want to make significant progress in the conservation of birds and other wildlife, a major, continuing challenge is to find a common language between biologists/naturalists and policy makers. Surely the ornithologists-turned-officials are in a strong position to help bridge this gap: they need, however, to remember that to make strategic and policy speak more digestible to bird people (and indeed any ordinary people!) it needs, for example, to be heavily interspersed with vivid pictures of birds and on the ground examples with results.

A particularly vivid image from Taej Mundkar's talk was of the spontaneous linking of hands at the launch of the Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy 1996-2000 ÔÇö governmental, NGO and scientific hands alike! An example to be followed in the UK or Brussels, for example??! As Taej said 'The future is in our hands'.

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