The red kite’s fight against German windmills

The red kite’s fight against German windmills

Introduction

It is very common to spot birds of prey when strolling along German fields during the summer. One of these birds is the red kit (Milvus milvus) with its characteristic forked tail. The species is endemic to Central Europe and more than half of the world’s population breed in Germany. That’s why it is sometimes referred to as Germany’s secret heraldic animal and that is why Germany holds a very special responsibility towards the red kite.

While the red kite is listed as ‘Least concern’ (LC) on the IUCN’s red list of threatened species, is increasing in numbers and now has a population of around 60,000-70,000 mature individuals, it does face numerous threats throughout its range.

Apart from poisoning in livestock farming – targeting predators such as foxes – illegal hunting, particularly in Spain, and the conversion of grasslands into agricultural lands, wind energy constitutes an opportunity to save the climate, but a threat to the red kite that has prompted the German government to change the Federal Nature Conservation Act.

Windmills – Saving the climate, but killing the red kite?

The German government, since 2021 comprising the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals, has long recognised the need for green energy. Irrespective of party – apart from the right-winged Alternative for Germany (AfD) – the transition to renewable energy has become part and parcel of political everyday life. To this end, ambitious goals have been set: until 2030, 2% of the German land mass should be dedicated to green energy while by then at least 80% of energy should be derived from renewables. This means that by then, green energy production should double from it is today, translating into a significant increase in energy produced by windmills.

Enters the red kite. Problematic for the red kite is its hunting behaviour: since it primarily goes after mice and other small rodents on the ground, its visual focus is towards the ground and not towards what lies ahead. And the more wind parks are constructed in its habitat, the more likely it is that it will collide with a wind turbine, which is very likely to kill it.

Red Kite by Debbie Turner is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

And here it is where it becomes problematic. According to Article 4 of the European Union’s Birds Directive, species listed in its Annex I – where the red kite is indeed listed – “shall be the subject of special conservation measures concerning their habitat in order to ensure their survival and reproduction in their area of distribution.” The construction of windmills certainly does not fall into this category. Another problem is also that in the new German government, the Greens hold both the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action. Climate protection through renewable wind energy and species conservation apparently collide, best exemplified by the case of the red kite. This could mean that the Greens face irreconcilable differences of interest.

The amended Federal Nature Conservation Act

Politics would not be politics if there were not loopholes. Since the Birds Directive is a directive (and not a regulation), which means under EU law that it is up to the Member States to implement it, the Minister of Environment, Steffi Lemke, and the Minister of Economy, Robert Habeck, met already in April 2022 to overcome this divide by changing the Federal Nature Conservation Act. The German Parliament and Council approved the changes in July 2022 and it has been in force since 29 July 2022.

The core elements of the changes aim to use the Birds Directive in a way that shifts the focus away from the individual bird to the species as such. Based on this approach, no windmills are to be constructed within 500m from the nest. Additionally, depending on the species, an assessment distance is to be kept from 500-1200m, followed by an additional 3200m. Within these areas, companies constructing windmills are to reduce the risk of killing birds, for instance by constructing attractive hunting grounds for birds, opposite of the direction of the windmill. Moreover, as practiced already in some communities, depending on the locale, windmills can be ordered to be stopped or camera systems to be installed that identify endangered species , leading to an immediate halt of the windmill.

Are windmills the problem and is the amended Act the solution?

In order to find out the major causes of death for red kites, the European Union, along with NGOs, universities and other partners funds the LIFE EUROKITE project. While the data has not been finalised, already in February 2022, preliminary results showed that natural predation was the major cause auf death, followed by illegal poisoning, power lines, hunting, and rail traffic. Windmills ranged on the seventh position.

This stands in stark contrast to a study carried out by Langgemach et al. from 2010 for the German state Brandenburg. Here, windmills accounted for almost 25% of causes of death of red and black kites. If this still proves to be correct for the rest of the country, the amended Nature Conservation Act might indeed provide for some increased protection for the species. If other causes are the reason for possible population declines, the Act does not address these.

Whenever windmills are erected, there will be groups opposing these. While these groups mostly stem from either the right-winged spectrum or from non-renewable industries, the clash between nature conservation and climate protection may open up a completely new discourse on what is more important: the conservation of individual species (or even individual animals) or safeguarding the interests of society as a whole by providing for more climate-friendly energy production?

This is certainly a very political question and will not be discussed here further. Yet, decision-makers need to cooperate closely in order to do away with potential conflicts over who and what approach is right.

Reference

Langgemach, T., O. Krone, P. Sömmer, A. Aue & U. Wittstatt. (2010). Verlustursachen bei Rotmilan (Milvus milvus) und Schwarzmilan (Milvus migrans) im Land Brandenburg. Vogel & Umwelt 18, pp. 85-101.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: