EU court: Bulgaria must protect unique wild bird habitats in Rila Mountains
Rila, the highest mountain range of Bulgaria and the Balkan Peninsula, is among the most valuable areas for the conservation of 41 vulnerable bird species in the country and in the EU. Under the EU legislation on the conservation of wild birds, member states are obliged to designate special protection areas for the conservation of species in danger.
Bulgaria has so far properly classified about 70% of the zone as a Special Protection Area. However, this does not cover significant parts of the habitats of 17 endangered bird species like Boreal's owl, the Eurasian pygmy owl, as well as the white-backed woodpecker, the three-toed woodpecker, the hazel grouse and the black woodpecker.
The battle for Rila has continued for almost 10 years. Half of the missing area is covered by forests at least a century old. Many of them have been included in the so-called swaps - a means to exchange forest in remote areas for state-owned plots in prime locations, often protected areas, in order to invest in real estate development or ski resorts. Swaps have been investigated by the European Commission as a possible instance of illegal state aid.
In January 2016, the Court ruled against Bulgaria in a similar case concerning the designation and protection of Kaliakra, another important area for protection of birds in the northern Bulgarian Black Sea Coast.