Nightingale in wood

Nightingales, wolves and Bialowieza Forest – all in a day’s work for our wildlife lawyer

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Anna Heslop is head of our wildlife team. She has worked at the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the European Commission. She joined ClientEarth to work on our clean air case against the UK government and now focuses on defending wild places like Europe’s oldest forest, Bialowieza.

What’s the latest on protecting Bialowieza from illegal logging?

“Bialowieza is a magical forest spanning the border between Poland and Belarus. It’s one of most precious, untouched habitats in Europe, and home to some amazing animals, birds and plants that don’t exist anywhere else in Europe.”

A few months ago, the Polish government issued some new annexes to their law, which would allow them to start logging again. We’ve just done a big objection to that proposal and we’re waiting to see how the Polish government reacts. This comes after logging in Bialowieza sparked massive protests and we, together with other campaigners, sent a complaint to the European Commission. The logging was eventually declared illegal by the Court of Justice of the EU, which set record-breaking fines if logging continued.

Why is Bialowieza so special?

Bialowieza is this magical forest, which spans the border between Poland and Belarus. It’s one of most precious, untouched habitats in Europe, and home to some amazing species and habitats that just don’t exist anywhere else in Europe.

It’s protected by the Birds and Habitats Directive. The way this law works is, every government lists the most important sites in their country – the places that are really super important for nature – that contain a type of habitat that doesn’t exist anywhere else, that rare birds or animals or plants need to survive. There is a big list of those sites all over the EU and beyond, based on an international treaty called the Bern Convention.

Within those areas, it’s not that you could never take any action like cutting down a tree, but you have to meet certain tests before you do, to make sure you’re not damaging the features that make it a special place. So if there’s a particular type of bird nesting there, you can’t damage the part of the forest the bird needs. It’s about interacting with the environment in a way that is sustainable, so we can live alongside nature.

Why do you work on wildlife?

My heart has always been in nature conservation, that’s where I started my career. It’s so nice to work on something where there’s a physical result. I’ve had cases where there was a beautiful natural area that was going to be destroyed. To be able to stand on the edge of that site and say, “I helped to protect this” – that is a really tangible win.

What’s next for wildlife protection at ClientEarth?

We’re looking at how we can protect big, flagship species like wolves and bears. They have been driven to extinction across most of Europe, but they’re essential for thriving natural ecosystems. I can’t promise anything at the moment, but big mammals in northern Europe and the Mediterranean is a major focus for us.

Why are we going to win to fight to protect nature?

ClientEarth is so effective is because we bring realistic cases that have a solid legal and scientific basis.

We have people with great policy experience, great advocacy experience, who can go in and – using our legal knowledge – say ‘this is what the law needs to do’. Okay, Mr or Mrs politician, how do you want to achieve this? So we get in place really good, strong laws, and then we actually enforce those laws. That’s why we’re taken seriously – because we do things really thoroughly, and we’re always led by evidence and science.

What’s your favourite animal?

I’ve got so many! I think my absolute favourite creature is the nightingale. Nightingales are boring-looking little brown birds. You’re unlikely to see one as they’re really shy and sadly their numbers are declining. If you ever do, they look so dull, but their song is unbelievable – it sounds like 20 different birds all singing together. It’s beautiful.

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