Bird non-disturbance period source of clashes in Estonia as well as other countries

Ülle Harju
, journalist
Nesting blue tit in Stroomi forest (Tallinn, Estonia).
Nesting blue tit in Stroomi forest (Tallinn, Estonia). Photo: Madis Veltman

Forestry tycoons have complained that Estonia is the only country in the North-East or even the whole of Europe that mandates a bird non-disturbance period. Actually, although similarly to Estonia, some type of partial logging ban period and bird non-disturbance periods apply during nesting season also in other countries around the Baltic Sea, birds are still being killed and nests destroyed, and the lawfulness of such actions is currently being weighed by the European Court of Justice, wrote Postimees on April 16.

The non-disturbance period that in Estonia runs from 15 April through 30 June started as usual: for the most part, logging operations in forests belonging to the state were put on hold, and in privately held forests, the Environment Authority prepared to suspend logging on findings of bird nests. Forestry companies have challenged the actions of the Authority in court. The Estonian Supreme Court is currently waiting for a preliminary ruling from the European Court of Justice in the matter of whether and/or under what conditions, destruction of nests and killing of chicks is allowed during nesting season.

The Climate Ministry is probably waiting for the ruling too, since it has still not proposed any specific amendments to the Nature Protection Act to deal with bird non-disturbance period, although it had promised this already in 2021. ‘The Ministry does not at this time envisage amendments concerning the bird non-disturbance period,’ Permanent Secretary Keit Kasemets stated.

The bill whose elaboration was halted would have prohibited logging operations in protected areas from 15 April to 15 July. It would not, however, have resolved the problem of being in violation of the EU’s Birds Directive that prohibits deliberate killing and disturbance of nesting birds, wherever they are found. In addition, birds nest longer than three months[ML1] . The logging ban period was opposed by forest management companies citing economic harm.

Exploiting the lack of awareness

Forest management businesses are exploiting the situation where even environmentalists are not sufficiently aware of relevant legislation in neighbouring countries, which renders them unable to refute the sweeping assertions that businesses spout to the press.

‘We are the only ones in Europe that have enacted a bird non-disturbance period and officials of the Environmental Authority have no inkling of what the land-law concept of ownership means,’ thundered industrialist and forest tycoon Raul Kirjanen to the Estonian business daily Äripäev [Business Day] on 28 October 2023. (‘Raul Kirjanen: timber sector facing three crises simultaneously’, Äripäev 28 Oct 2023 [in Estonian – transl.])

‘No such prohibition applies in our neighbouring countries,’ announced Andres Olesk, manager of Valga Puu Ltd (in which Kirjanen has a major holding) in 2021 [in Estonian – transl.], when the Environment Authority started suspending logging operations on account of birds nesting in the forest.

Neither Kirjanen nor the Estonian Association of Forestry and Timber Industries responded to questions addressed to them by the daily Postimees [The Postman] concerning sources and specific details of such assertions.

Restrictions on logging also exist in other states

‘Mostly, logging restrictions have been enacted in other European states – as in Estonia – in nature protection legislation in order to implement the Birds Directive,’ counters Agu Leivits, advisor to Environment Authority in the area of living nature, refuting the false assertions. ‘For instance, in Germany, different states have different restrictions.’ Which means that, similarly to Estonia, a certain limited logging ban period also applies in other countries.

Environmentalists in countries bordering the Baltic Sea have for years fought for a comprehensive ban on logging during nesting season, since the Birds Directive and partial logging ban periods have not been sufficient to rein in a large part of forestry businesses.

Bird non-disturbance period is longer in Latvia

‘Since 2008, we have been fighting for a comprehensive logging ban period in almost all the ways possible (haven’t tried court yet),’ Postimees was informed by Viesturs Ķerus, head of the Latvian Ornithological Society. ‘Our aim is to ensure a comprehensive logging ban period from 1 April to 30 June, but the more data we analyse the clearer it becomes that the ban should run much longer.’

In Latvia, the law currently prohibits clearcuts or cuts of any type during various periods between 15 March and 30 September in Natura 2000 sites and in certain bird-rich forests.

‘Though the list is rather long, in terms of area to which this applies, it is small,’ Ķerus added. ‘Most of the forests are not protected during the breeding season, and we have estimated that more than 50 thousand bird nests (including also threatened and protected species) are being destroyed annually in state forests alone. Which is why we advocate for a general felling moratorium.’

Ķerus confirmed that Latvian tycoons resort to much the same tactics as Estonian ones. ‘We also often hear the counter-argument that there is no such moratorium elsewhere in Europe (except partially in Estonia). But you should keep in mind that it is not necessarily true. The forest legislation is very different among countries, which makes it hard to compare.’

Yet, there are also countries in which, as a matter of tradition, no logging operations are undertaken during spring and early summer.

Ķerus finds that even if there is no comprehensive bird non-disturbance period on the statute books in other jurisdictions, this does not mean one is not needed. ‘It might just be an indication of the fact that the interests of timber sector in the particular country are stronger than those of nature conservation,’ he noted. ’The example of Latvia is a good example for this, but this is true also in the case of Finland and probably also Sweden, where initiatives to ensure such a moratorium are met by strong opposition from the timber sector (and the argument ‘there is no such moratorium in other countries’ can be used by all of them).’

A whopping clearcut recently completed by a big forestry company in Kuude Village, Viljandi County (Estonia). In the afternoon of 15 April, harvested logs had yet to be extracted.
A whopping clearcut recently completed by a big forestry company in Kuude Village, Viljandi County (Estonia). In the afternoon of 15 April, harvested logs had yet to be extracted. Photo: Elmo Riig / Sakala

Lithuanian rules are stricter than Latvia’s

’There are certain restrictions on felling during bird breeding season (since March 15 till 1st of August),’ Žymantas Morkvėnas, Director of Baltic Environment Forum, characterised the situation in Lithuania.

‘Basically, the total felling restriction is in the felling in the Lithuanian protected areas having National Parks status. There is exception that spruce can be felled in case of sanitary cuts to prevent bark beatle invasion,’ Morkvėnas stated.

In other areas, restrictions depend on forest category. According to a leaflet published by Lithuania’s Forest Inspectorate, logging and timber extraction are prohibited in Category II protected forests situated in protected areas, in Category III (protected) forests and, in certain situations, also in Category IV group of (working) forests.

Finland punishes ordinary people

In Finland, nesting non-disturbance periods apply by listed species, including even common ones such as jackdaw and magpie.

According to the website of Finnish bird protection society BirdLife Suomi, the wording used to impose bird non-disturbance periods seems very strict. The prohibition of disturbance also extends to activities not intended to disturb nesting. For instance, a picnic trip to an island where birds nest is illegal. ‘You cannot lawfully cut down a tree in your back yard if it is likely that birds are nesting there,’ was another example.

BirdLife notes that while an ordinary person is likely to get a fine for cutting down an apple tree in their back yard, the government does not prohibit logging in working forests during nesting season.

‘This interpretation is not based on legal rulings, and is therefore open to question,’ BirdLife writes. ‘The fact is that nest protection does not apply where agriculture and forestry or building operations are concerned. Wild bird species, however, are subject to another subsection of the law that does not provide for such an exception.’

In 2021, after the Skydda Skogen incident in Sweden (European Court of Justice: Sweden falled to protect species 8 March 2021) the government in Finland was compelled to detail, as response to an inquiry by bird protection activists, the measures applied in Finland to ensure observance of EU law. A proposal was made for start and end dates of a bird non-disturbance period, focussing on critical nesting time from April to July. The ministries shied away from the problem, claiming that Finnish forest law differs significantly from the Swedish model and that the ruling of the European Court of Justice does not mesh with Finnish practices.

Following that, Finnish environmentalists expressed hope that the problem would be resolved by the new nature protection law – yet, the law, which entered into force in the summer of 2023, does not provide for a comprehensive bird non-disturbance period.

Sweden grapples with big business

In 2021, the European Court of Justice ruled that Sweden was in breach of EU legislation by allowing logging operations in the habitat of protected birds. Nature protection association Skydda Skogen [Protect the Forest – transl.] expressed hope that this would allow to rein in depredations by big forestry businesses.

Unfortunately, big companies often ignore relevant legislation outright. ‘The district court and the environment court suspended Södra’s logging operations in a forest inhabited by protected birds, but they went ahead with the clearcut anyway,’ Skydda Skogen wrote in December 2023, referring to the forestry group’s repeated prior violations.

Södra is a an association of forest owners in the south of Sweden that, according to information available in Wikipedia, holds slightly more than a half of privately owned forests in the region. Södra’s Estonian subsidiary, Södra Metsad [Södra Forests – transl.] is among the largest private forest owners in Estonia as well.

‘In Sweden, the reality is that the nesting period is ignored,’ summed up Lina Burnelius of the nature protection association Protect the Forest Sweden . ‘Identifying nests of large birds of prey and reporting them often falls on NGOs, and there are no other restrictions on forestry operations during nesting periods of other birds.

Estonian Supreme Court requests clarification

The Swedish case arose in relation to a conservation directive that focuses on animal and bird species under special protection. The Birds Directive applies to all birds and its impact would be much more extensive. The European Court of Justice has yet to issue its interpretation of the latter.

The Estonian Supreme Court is hoping to help hammer out a clear legal position in the matter for all Europe. It sent in its request for a preliminary ruling to the European court in December 2023 to clarify the circumstances in which the harming of birds is to be deemed deliberate as well as what are the exceptions in which deliberate harming of birds during forestry operations would be permissible. (‘Supreme Court asks European Court of Justice for advice on killing of birds’, Postimees, 19 December 2023 [in Estonian – transl.])

Ivo Pilving, Chief Justice of the Administrative Chamber of the Estonian Supreme Court, concedes that the wording of the European directive is strict. ‘Meaning that there may not be any disturbance, up to killing, and any harming of nests,’ he explained. ‘It is our view as well that the wording, as it has been formulated, should be seen as strict, and that reasonable alternatives have to be looked for. Yet the Directive itself states that protection of birds is not the only aim that is pursued in those forests, i.e., there still has to be a balancing act. There is recognition of the need for compromises, that conservation cannot be unconditional. In some cases, the person managing the forest might be able to show that otherwise it will be lost for them.’

Pilving agrees that the exceptions stated in the paragraphs that follow later do not mention forestry. ‘They cite serious damage to forests. One of our questions s also whether serious damage to the forest must be seen from the point of view of conservation or also from an economic point of view. That’s the response we are waiting for – what can be taken into account and what not, and how serious the damage must be.’

Curiously, the companies that sued the Environment Authority opposed requesting the European Court to Justice to rule on the matter.

Bird non-disturbance periods in Estonia and its neighbouring countries


15 April – 30 June

Logging ban period in state forest, with the exception of pest control cuts.

Logging ban in private forests where the likelihood of nesting is 6+ nests per hectare.


1 April – 30.09

Bans are imposed, for various periods, on thinning cuts of stands below 10 years of age, on cuts in islands, in certain types of forest, in protected areas and in urban forests.


15 March – 1 August

Ban on principal types of cut in mature forests as well as on harvested log extraction in national parks, certain types of protected forest and certain types of working forest.

During various periods, bans also apply to thinning and pest control as well as other types of cut in certain types of forest, and until 1 September in the vicinity of protected species’ nesting sites.


10 March – 31 July

Between these dates, logging is prohibited during nesting season for different periods according to species concerned.


Logging is prohibited during protected species’ nesting season in nesting sites.

Sources: Environment Authority, various countries’ information sheets

Photo: Katrin Idla

Environment Authority monitors observance of nesting season non-disturbance period

The Environment Authority has announced that it will monitor forestry operations for observance of the nesting season non-disturbance period from 15 April through the end of June. Similarly to previous years, scheduled inspection raids will focus on protected areas and bird-rich forests where the impact on forest birds is felt the most.

‘Our inspectors will specifically focus on forests that are likely to have more than 6 nests per hectare. Logging operations will be allowed to proceed if no birds have been sighted or heard,’ remarked Olav Avarsalu, Environment Authority’s Deputy Director-General for Enforcement.

The Environment Authority together with the Environment Agency have compiled a matrix of stands that assesses probable concentration of birds and probability of nesting based on stand age and habitat type. Owners can check the type and age of their forests in the Forest Portal and use the information to assess the likelihood of nesting.

Last year during nesting season non-disturbance period, 32 logging operations were suspended and nests of 10 protected species identified.

RMK (Estonian Centre for Management of State-owned Forests) stated that it has observed nesting season non-disturbance periods for already more than 20 years. For the third consecutive year, the logging ban period is extended for an additional period of two weeks – until 30 June.

‘During high nesting season of forest birds we abstain from normal logging operations. When the soil dries, we continue with log stacking. We also carry out urgently needed operations necessary for dealing with pest damage and containment,’ explained Erko Soolmann, member of the management board of the RMK.