Yellow wagtail, an endangered species
Yellow wagtail, an endangered species RSPB

An elderly British couple on the Isle of Wight has been ordered by authorities to vacate their farm so the property can be transformed into a nature preserve designed to breed various endangered bird species. The Daily Telegraph reported that under European Union (EU) regulations, the 60-acre estate will be flooded to create breeding grounds for such rare birds as Brent geese, widgeons, shovellers, lapwings and redshanks. Kenneth Hicks, a former army officer, and his wife Deidre, both in their late 70s, have lived on the property (called Harbour Farm, in Bembridge) for 30 years and had planned to leave the lands to their three sons once they retired.

Now the Hicks' claim that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a charitable organization dedicated to preservation, in tandem with the British government and the EU are forcibly removing them “with a gun to their heads.” The Hicks will be relocated to another home at a cost of some hundreds of thousands pounds (perhaps more than 1 million pounds) to the British taxpayer, the Telegraph noted, but they are unhappy to be pressured to leave their long-time home.

According to reports, the RSPB asked Britain’s Environment Agency (EA), which manages the country’s waterways, among other environmental projects, to permit controlled flooding from the Eastern Yar river (near the Hicks’ farm) in order to create more breeding locations for rare birds. Despite Kenneth Hicks’ protestations that such flooding would destroy his farm, he was warned that if he challenged RSPB, they (or European officials) could file legal action against him because the property was located within a European Special Protection Area -- which essentially classifies lands where vulnerable birds and other wildlife can use as habitats.

The EU has enacted very strict legislation designed to protect wildfowl and reverse their declining numbers. Indeed, Brussels has created such Special Protection Areas (SPAs) across Britain and the European continent. SPAs fall under the EU’s “Habitats Directive,” which seeks to provide “a strict system of species protection” for birds and has required EU members to adhere to such guidelines.

“We didn’t want to go but we had no hope of defeating European law,” Hicks told the Daily Mail newspaper. “Neither did the British government. I am not a political person, but this is a worrying example of how European law affects ordinary people.” Hicks added: “It has forced us out of our home because it effectively values the rights of birds above the rights of human beings. We are broken-hearted.”

Citing that he was forced to accept a “fair offer” from EA, Hicks absolved the agency of any culpability in the matter, instead blaming the EU. “It is a very sad situation,” Hicks stated. “We have been forced into this agreement… because it was made abundantly clear to us that under European law there was no other option. It was excellent land which we used to grow hay for our horses and for around 100 sheep to graze. When the river level rises the land is expected to be at the very least waterlogged and unusable.”

The confiscation of the Hicks’ farm raises some complex legal questions as well as questions about the jurisdiction of the EU over domestic British issues. Reportedly, when the Hicks couple purchased the property the land was designated part of a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” by environmental authorities, but the Hicks never thought the farm would ever be flooded to protect birds on the property. By late 1998 the land became part of an EU Special Protection Area, which compelled the Hicks to sell 420 acres to RSPB to help satisfy some EU rules governing the management of nature preserves. At that time, the RSPB had contended that the SPA (Harbor Farm) was performing “far below optimum,” which meant that not enough birds were breeding and that it would be necessary to eventually flood the property.

However, a spokesman for RSPB denied that they threatened the Hicks with any legal action if they refused to move, “The RSPB’s role is the management and restoration of our own part of this potentially exceptional wildlife site,” the spokesman told the Mail.

For environmentalists, the declining number of birds in Europe and Britain take precedence over the land rights of people like the Hicks. Earlier this year, a survey taken by RSPB revealed that the numbers of various fine feathered species, including starlings, house sparrows and other threatened garden birds, in Britain were plunging. “Several of our familiar and best-loved species have been declining at alarming rates over the 34 years that the RSPB has been running the birdwatch and this year's results show a continuing decline," Martin Harper, the RSPB's conservation director, said, according to The Guardian.

RSPB spokeswoman Wendy Johnson further noted that the starling population has dropped 82 percent since her organization began the survey, while house sparrows have dropped by 63 percent in number. In some parts of Britain, RSPB warned, some types of birds have completely vanished.

Of the United Kingdom’s 107 most common breeding birds, 16 have suffered population declines of more than one-third since 1995, including the willow tit, starling, cuckoo, lapwing, whinchat and wood warbler. Many of these species require special conservation sites and nature preserves (like the Hicks’ property) in order to survive.