The aim of the Birds Directive is the long-term conservation of all wild bird species naturally occurring within the territory of the European Union, including the migratory species. As well as protecting and maintaining bird habitats, the Directive also regulates the management of the bird populations. The Directive arose from the realisation that, as migratory birds do not recognise national borders, they can only be protected successfully on a cross-border basis, with all European countries assuming joint responsibility. In Germany the Birds Directive is implemented mainly through the Federal Law on Nature Protection and the Federal Directive on Species Protection, as well as some provisions in hunting law. The Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive together make up the “Natura 2000” ecological network of protected European habitats. The aim of Natura 2000 is to ensure the long-term conservation of biodiversity across national borders.
Natura 2000 and Bird Protection Areas
Many Bird Protection Areas, also known as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Natura 2000 sites have only been preserved in such good condition thanks to the commitment and care taken by their owners or managers, usually over generations. These sites must continue to be preserved in good condition for future generations. The conservation of the habitats in the SPAs is the key to ensuring the long-term survival of the species that live there. Management plans have been drawn up to ensure these goals are reached. For each Special Protection Area, the plans outline the maintenance measures necessary to maintain or restore the favourable conservation status of the relevant bird species. Particularly valuable or sensitive areas are clearly delineated, while measures of a general nature (e.g. measures guiding visitors in a particular direction) are documented as “whole area measures”.
The management plans consist of a text part and a map part. The text part describes the area, the objects of protection and their mapping, as well as giving an evaluation of their conservation status and outlining detailed measures to protect them. In the map section, the existing population is mapped, and the areas in which measures are being implemented are highlighted.
In Bavaria, 84 areas have been designated Special Protection Areas, covering a total area of 549.000 hectares (of which 307.000 hectares are forest). These protection areas were granted legal protection status as early as 2006 with the adoption of the Bird Protection Ordinance (“Vogelschutzverordnung”/”VoGEV”). The Bavarian SPAs and Habitats Directive areas were brought together under one ordinance with the adoption of the “Bavarian Ordinance on Natura 2000 Areas” (“BayNat2000V”) in April 2006.
Differences in habitats determine the conservation goals
The areas selected as Special Protection Areas were those considered the most suitable as protection areas for the respective species listed in Annex 1 of the Birds Directive. Also to be protected in the areas were the most important breeding, wintering and moulting areas and resting places for migratory bird species. Many of these areas are in fact hotspots where protection measures have been implemented for years. The bird sanctuaries on the large Bavarian lakes and rivers have for a long time also been designated nature protection areas, for example. In numerous species protection programmes, the population numbers for certain bird species (especially those of the open countryside) have been documented in detail for decades.
For forest bird species, this has not usually been the case, however. The population numbers and population development have only been monitored in any detail for a few species - the nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) in the Nuremberg Reichswald forest, the black stork (Ciconia nigra) in forest areas in Franconia, and the woodlark (Lullula arborea) on military training areas, for example. How most other forest bird species were faring was known only to individual experts or local managers. In this respect, the drawing up of Natura 2000 management plans for every Special Protection Area is a milestone. For each Special Protection Area, Appendix 2 of the Bavarian Natura 2000 ordinance lists the specific bird species the respective area has been designated to protect. Also given are guidelines for the implementation of the site-specific conservation objectives, which became legally binding with their announcement by the Bavarian State Ministry of the Environment and Consumer Protection. The habitats and key requirements such as cavity trees, deadwood or eyrie trees are described in the conservation goals, providing a basic orientation for the planning of conservation measures.
Harnessing funding opportunities
The management plan is a guideline for government action. It creates clarity and planning certainty, but is not legally binding for landowners when it comes to the actual utilisation of the area. The management plan thus does not establish any immediate obligations for private landowners other than those already imposed by the legal “prohibition of deterioration” (Article 33 of the [German] Federal Law on the Protection of Nature (§ 33 BNatSchG)). Legal requirements with regard to species and habitat protection, for example, and any existing protected area ordinances, continue to apply regardless of this.
The forestry funding programme WaldFÖPR offers support for numerous measures, thus contributing not only to climate protection, but also to the protection of biodiversity and to the conservation of habitats. The maintenance and establishment of forests well adapted to the relevant site are essential if the characteristic bird population for that site is to flourish.
The Forest Contractual Nature Protection Programme (“VNP Wald”) is also important for the implementation of conservation goals. It provides grants for voluntary nature and species conservation measures implemented by private or corporate forest owners, or those responsible for measures carried out jointly by several forest owners in their forests. The VNP Wald programme provides funding for nature conservation projects carried out on ecologically valuable areas.
The conservation and improvement of the supply of key resources: habitat trees and deadwood
Two important points in the management planning - and in forest bird protection in general - are the protection and conservation or increasing of the range of habitat trees and deadwood on offer. Woodpeckers, the Tengmalm’s owl (Aegolius funereus) and Eurasian pygmy owl (Glaucidium passerinum), flycatcher species and many other species are dependent on an adequate supply of deadwood and habitat trees. Trees with rotting and woodpecker cavities are particularly valuable, and indispensable in close-to-nature forest management. Such cavity trees are not only breeding sites for woodpeckers, owls and tits, but also for hornets, bats, dormice, pine martyns and many other species.
The individual species of bird use deadwood in different ways and to varying degrees, for example as a foraging biotope, a nesting or roosting site, or as a perch for singing or drumming. An increase in the amount of deadwood in a forest stand has a positive effect on the population density of cavity-nesting birds. These important structures should thus be left in the stand, and in bigger areas with little deadwood and few habitat trees, the deadwood volume should be increased. The nature protection concept of the Bavarian State Forests company (BaySF) can provide some guidance. It suggests a volume of 40 m³ deadwood/ha for Class 2 forests (older than 180 years old) and 20 m³ for Class 3 forests (older than 140 years old) - in each case with an average of 10 habitat trees per hectare.
It is especially in these older forests rich in deadwood and habitat trees that the large cavities made by the black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) and the subsequent occupiers of its holes are often to be found. There are other suggested threshold values, for areas inhabited by the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) and the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus), for example. Studies in the Alpine region show the strong attachment of the white-backed woodpecker to predominantly deciduous forest areas with small islands of around 40 m³ of deadwood in the middle of its territory, around the nesting site. For these sites to be adopted as breeding sites, however, there must also be more than 30 m³ of deadwood per hectare on an area of 30 to 80 hectares. The three-toed woodpecker settles in boreo-montane, conifer-dominated stands, and requires 30 m³ of deadwood per hectare (standing and lying) in its 100-hectare territory.
It is precisely those trees that do not make the grade as “the management ideal” in commercial forestry that are often of most interest to birds. With this in mind, forest managers can leave a few “distinctive” trunks standing right from the juvenile stage in the trees’ lives (so-called habitat tree “candidates”). Broken crowns, root plates, tree stumps, coarse split bark and protruding plates of bark are all particular structures that can be used by different species of bird. As a tree ages, the probability that it will become a habitat tree rises. When these habitat tree candidates or existing habitat trees are conserved in the stand, they become new foraging trees and even nesting trees for birds. Treecreepers (Certhiidae) thus nest in pockets in the bark, for example, while the middle spotted woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius) and lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor) search for insects in cracks in the bark.
Eyrie trees and eyrie protection
The biotope trees also include trees with the eyries or large nests of tree-nesting bird species. Among the species that build these large nests are birds of prey, or also the black stork. The conservation and protection of eyries is another focus of the measures in the management plans. For one thing, the nests of the bird species in question are usually rare, and they are often used for many years and added to each year. Secondly, the birds are very sensitive to disturbance during the nest-finding and breeding periods.
The nests and their surroundings are often protected in the management plans through the declaration of “eyrie protection zones” around known breeding sites. It is not only the nest itself, but also its surroundings that are important for the birds. The protection zone provides cover, as well as places to keep guard, transfer prey and roost. This area around the nest, i.e. within a radius of 50 m, should be conserved even outside the nesting season. The removal of a few single trees does not however usually present a problem.
Consideration at sensitive times
Another important measure - usually in combination with nest protection - is to prevent the birds being disturbed at critical times. These are mainly the mating, nesting and rearing seasons. The European honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus), for example, inhabits richly structured landscapes and breeds in sparse deciduous, mixed coniferous, and riparian forests, as well as in field copses. Its often small, easily overlooked nests are usually built on deciduous trees with low crowns. This species is very sensitive to disturbance, especially during the nest-building and brooding periods, so that disturbances must be prevented within a radius of 200 m from the occupied nests (300 m for the black stork and Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo). The sensitive periods for the different species are specified in the management plan. The sensitive period for the eagle owl thus begins as early as January, and that of the black stork begins in early March. It ends only in summer, once the young birds have become independent. During this time, no forestry measures should be carried out in the respective areas. To avoid conflicts relating to the problems of forest conservation in spruce-dominated areas, it is recommended that experts familiar with the area are consulted at an early stage, as well as the nature conservation authorities where applicable.
There are also species sensitive to disturbance outside the nesting season, such as the western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), also known as the wood grouse. For this species, the plans designate core areas that it is particularly important to protect and conserve. Especially in winter, these shy forest dwellers feed on needles, which do not supply much energy; any additional movement is thus energy-depleting and dangerous. Constantly increasing and uncontrolled winter tourism massively disturbs this species. Where encounters occur, it takes flight. This leads to a high loss of energy. The “disturbance prevention” measure can be implemented by creating protection zones, restricting access, guiding visitors and providing information to visitors.
Special habitats tend to occur on moist or dry sites with sparse vegetation. Carrs and mixed forests with an easily penetrable herbaceous and humus layer are the ideal habitat for the Eurasian woodcock. There are high losses in this species due to hunting during the migration period and in their wintering grounds. This makes it particularly important to protect their habitat. Forest biotopes on dry and easily warmed soils, such as those still available in the sparse pine forests of the Nuremberg Reichswald, are extremely important for the few nightjar populations still to be found in Bavaria. Measures to protect the nightjar thus focus on preserving the sparse pine forest structures it depends on. Measures to expose the mineral soil are planned in some areas to help this endangered species.
Disruptive events such as the falling of individual trees, snow breakage, or drought damage bring some differentiation into homogeneous stands and lead to a co-existence of different vegetation structures. Natural succession is able to establish itself quickly in such gaps. Some ground-nesting species and many birds that nest in shrub cover benefit from these untreated areas. Root plates provide a special small habitat all of their own. The torn-out root system leaves a ramified, vertical tangle of roots much favoured as a nesting place for the wren, for example. For the grouse, the depression left in the soil underneath can be both a nesting place and place for taking dust baths. Where they are near water, these root plates can be an alternative habitat for the kingfisher. Leaving root plates in place is thus often mentioned in management plans as a measure to support the kingfisher.
Sparse forest structures, forest edges, and areas transitioning to open countryside
Forest edges and the transitional areas between forest and open countryside are often habitats particularly rich in species. These border areas may be the outer edges of forests or also inner forest areas bordering on larger gaps (forest meadows, windthrow areas, forest or agricultural roads). Forest edges are contact zones for all sorts of different habitats. There is an overlapping of the different biological communities there, or there may even be a particular “set” of species specifically adapted to these ecotones (transitional habitats). This is often reflected in a particularly large number of species. Light-demanding tree and shrub species such as hawthorn, sloe, wild rose, rowan and red elderberry provide nesting sites, hiding places or perches to sit or sing. The abundance of insects and fruit on them are an important basic source of food. Along the sunny fringes, species such as the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla) and black woodpecker will search for ants, for example. For species such as the turtle dove or grey-headed woodpecker, forest edges are the transitional areas between their nesting habitats in the forest and feeding habitats in the adjacent open countryside.
In the Special Protection Areas in the Alps, it is important to conserve areas of structure-rich so-called “krummholz” (naturally stunted, deformed knee-high timber of mountain pine and green alder (Alnus alnobetula)), interspersed with areas of open countryside (pastures, natural grassland, dwarf shrubland heaths) and individual trees or small, sparse groups of trees. These transitional areas are core habitats of the black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) and alpine citril finch (Carduelis citrinella), among other species. The loose mosaic of transitional areas between open alpine pastures and sparse forest areas along the edges of the forest pastures can be improved by reversing succession or permitting extensive and low-impact forest grazing as well as by moderate cutting. At the same time, a sufficient number of old trees with branches low on the trunk should be preserved, as well as young growth.
For some of the once rare forest species, there are success stories to tell. The black stork populations, which breed in large, contiguous areas of forest, have for example increased significantly in recent decades. The most recent German national report on bird conservation, “Birds in Germany 2019”, documents an increase in the number of breeding pairs of forest bird species, set against great losses in open countryside species. This can among other things be attributed to the fact that for decades now, there has been a positive development in our forests - a move towards close-to-nature forest management. The species dependent on forests rich in deadwood and habitat trees benefit especially from this.
It is not only the state forest companies and municipalities who have set themselves ambitious targets in terms of an increase in the number of old-growth and habitat trees and quantity of deadwood in their forests. Many private forest owners are traditionally highly committed to forest nature conservation. Likewise, the increasing grants available in subsidy programmes show a growing commitment to the conservation of biodiversity.
Nevertheless, climatic changes are already underway that may have negative consequences, especially for species that typically live in cooler, conifer-dominated regions with little opportunity to migrate. In turn, species from Mediterranean areas are increasingly migrating into Bavaria, too. The Eurasian scops owl (Otus scops), a species whose typical, monotonous call is familiar to many from holiday destinations in the Mediterranean region, has for example been recorded in the Special Protection Area in the Oberer Steigerwald forest.
The legal requirements arising from the Birds Directive for environmental and forestry authorities provide a framework for active forest bird protection. The management plan of a Special Protection Area describes the conservation status of the relevant bird species and outlines the necessary measures to be taken. The associated maps show the location of the populations and areas that are particularly worthy of protection. The management plans are published on the website of the [Bavarian] State Office for the Environment. Owners and managers keep an eye on both rare and common species and their habitat requirements. There are established recommendations that take account of aspects of conservation such as habitat trees, deadwood, islands of old timber in the forest, longer rotation periods or unused areas. The available state subsidy programmes are valuable instruments that may encourage and help forest owners to implement the authorities’ binding management plans.