EU Derogations | Killing birds legally

BirdLife International (the global partnership of non-governmental organizations that strives to conserve birds and their habitats) will soon be launching a virtual event that will showcase how more than 14,000,000 birds have been legally killed across EU Member States between 2009-17. ‘Legally’ because of the use of derogations to the Birds Directive. Incidentally, we’d like to know why the team that produced the report chose to use a bird of prey on the cover: if it was intended to be a ‘clever’ pun on birds and killing it’s a misfire and a missed opportunity because the report covers the killing of birds by HUMANS, not raptors. Surely a shooter/poacher slaughtering wildlife would make more sense in this context?



The Birds Directive, adopted in April 1979, is one of the EU’s oldest pieces of legislation. It aims to protect all of the 500 wild bird species naturally occurring in the European Union, and was fully amended in 2009. The Directive states that “Habitat loss and degradation are the most serious threats to the conservation of wild birds. The Directive therefore places great emphasis on the protection of habitats for endangered and migratory species. It establishes a network of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) including all the most suitable territories for these species. Since 1994, all SPAs are included in the Natura 2000 ecological network, set up under the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC.”

Through the directive EU Member States committed themselves to the restriction and control of hunting, as well as to the establishment and management of bird protection areas. The full list of the twenty articles that are the basis of what became technically known as Directive/2009/147/EC can be found here.

In its five Annexes, the Birds Directive explains how it protects the 500 species of bird that occur in the EU (either as residents or migrants through the region):

  • Annex 1: 194 species and sub-species are particularly threatened. Member States must designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for their survival and all migratory bird species.
  • Annex 2: 82 bird species can be hunted. However, the hunting periods are limited and hunting is forbidden when birds are at their most vulnerable: during their return migration to nesting areas [ie in the spring], reproduction and the raising of their chicks.
  • Annex 3: overall, activities that directly threaten birds, such as their deliberate killing, capture or trade, or the destruction of their nests, are banned. With certain restrictions, Member States can allow some of these activities for 26 listed species.
  • Annex 4: the directive provides for the sustainable management of hunting but Member States must outlaw all forms of non-selective and large scale killing of birds, especially the methods listed in this annex [traps and nets of any kind are prohibited].
  • Annex 5: the directive promotes research to underpin the protection, management and use of all species of birds covered by the Directive, which are listed in this annex.


Unfortunately, despite the original intentions of the Directive, hunting lobbies have ensured that what should be Europe’s strongest laws on birds are riddled with exemptions – or with what are known across the EU as ‘derogations’.

According to the EU itself, a derogation is defined as:

… a provision in an EU legislative measure which allows for all or part of the legal measure to be applied differently, or not at all, to individuals, groups or organisations. The option to derogate is often granted to Member States and also to the social partners. In this context, derogation is not a provision excluding application of the legal measure: it is a choice given to allow for greater flexibility in the application of the law, enabling Member States or social partners to take into account special circumstances.

EurWORK, Derogation, 11 March 2007

A choice given to allow for greater flexibility in the application of the law“. And has that ‘choice’ ever been exploited. Derogations have been used to allow vast numbers of birds to be killed because of local ‘tradition’, like the use of glue sticks in France (now banned fortunately) and the hunting of Quail in Malta (which is used as a cover for killing Turtle Doves). Agriculture has applied for numerous exemptions (of course) which has led, for example, to ‘permission’ to hunt starlings in orchards in Italy (although the starling is not huntable under Annex II there) and Wood Pigeons in vegetable cultivation in Germany during the breeding season.


It’s presumably exemptions like these – plus the cumulative tallies of 82 ‘huntable’ species listed in Annex II – that will make up the 14,000,000 birds ”legally’ killed across Europe that will be detailed during the virtual event (no details have been released yet, but that’s the obvious assumption).

It’s a huge number, but when they’re added to the astonishing estimated minimum number of 25,000,000 birds killed illegally every year the scale of the ‘war on wildlife’ (especially birdlife) that ‘hunters’ (or poachers, or just plain criminals) are waging on Europe’s birds becomes clear. Some 39 MILLION birds killed across the EU every year…

2015 Report from BirdlIfe International

Of course, that figure is likely to be a huge under-estimation. The figure for killings – legal and illegal – are based on reported bags (which are routinely under-reported) and poaching (which is of course estimated and based on analysis that will inevitably be wide of the mark).

The Berlin-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter for example has said on their website for several years now that

Each year in the European Union, more than 52 million wild birds are legally shot by hunters, including numerous species that are severely endangered across the continent. This is the result of a CABS study which evaluated official hunting bag statistics from a total of 24 EU countries as well as Switzerland and Norway.

CABS, Hunting Bag Statistics

CABS used bag statistics from the 2014/15 hunting season to arrive at their figures, and note that “in addition, there is an unknown number of wild birds that are killed each year in countries without valuable data (Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United Kingdom) and outside the study area in the Mediterranean or Northern Africa“.

Illegal killings are is based on another BirdLife report, 2015’s ‘The Killing‘ which itself says figures for each region they looked at are ‘estimated’. The truth is that the figure for illegal killings is probably double that.

Birdlife also stated recently that an estimated 200,000 seabirds are caught up in fishing gear each year – a figure that again will be an estimate and under-reported as many fishing fleets routinely under-report how long they are at sea and how many fish they catch: why would they keep accurate records of dead birds?


None of these totals takes into account the industrial scale of killing of birds shot for a laugh here in the UK, of course, where, according to the shooting industry’s own figures, some 60 MILLION farm-bred pheasants and red-legged partridges are released every year to be shot by ‘sportsmen’. On top of that some 750,000 Red Grouse are shot every year (in a so-called ‘good’ year anyway: heather beetles and poor weather are impacting grouse shooting). It’s estimated that somewhere between 1 and 3 million wood pigeons are shot every year. Ducks and geese are killed by ‘wildfowlers’ every year. These figures combined – and whatever anyone might try to tell us these are all still birds – are probably equivalent to the legal and illegal killing of wild birds across Europe every year…

Derogations, exemptions, general licences, and ‘sport’. Birds are struggling to survive in Europe’s hugely altered landscapes already as nesting sites disappear, food items (especially wildflower seeds and invertebrates) vanish across vast areas of countryside, and climate change begins to alter what habitats are left. We’ve known this for a while now. 2012’s ‘The State of the UK’s birds‘ report stated that the UK had already lost 44 million birds since the 1960s. Two years later a report warned that an astonishing 421 million birds had vanished from Europe over the past three decades.

That hunters/poachers across Europe still insist on killing birds for fun is an absolute travesty. And that they have managed to weaken the most important piece of legislation protecting Europe’s birds for their own ends is a scandal.


  • The ‘Licence to Kill’ Virtual Event is being help on 10 November at 14.00 CET/ 13:00 GMT. Bookings can be made for free via Eventbrite