Brexit: what next for UK wildlife and nature?

Sandra Bell

19 September 2016

UK wildlife and nature has long relied on the EU for protection. Brexit puts much of this at risk, but the chance to reform UK farming policy also brings opportunities.

Our cherished nature is in trouble. The State of Nature report shows that 56% of species have declined over the past 50 years, while 15% are at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether.

But where nature has been protected by EU law there are also some good news stories.   

We all benefit from having thriving nature in our lives. For the sake of our own wellbeing we must step up, not weaken, action for nature.

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The Nature Directives

What has the EU done for our environment? The EU Nature Directives protect important nature sites and species. Many of the UK’s best loved sites – at land and sea – are protected by these laws including Cannock Chase, Epping Forest, Flamborough Head, Dartmoor and Snowdonia.

The recovery of iconic British species such as the beautiful bittern and red kite have been linked to the protection offered by the Directives. And some rare bee species are now dependent on nature sites protected by these laws for their survival, as so much bee-friendly habitat has been lost from the wider countryside.

The UK’s coast and seas are home to an amazing diversity of wildlife as well as having a special significance to British people. Before the Habitats Directive came into force, there were just three protected marine areas in the UK. Now there are over 100 UK marine sites protected by EU laws (covering an area the size of Belgium).

Bittern bird in reeds

The threat

In the referendum campaign George Eustice, the minister in charge of farming, described the Nature Directives as “spirit crushing”.

Despite this, we know that the UK public – both Leave and Remain voters – want to see our nature protected. A recent YouGov survey for Friends of the Earth found that 83% of people said that, post-Brexit, we should pass laws providing the same (37%) or higher (46%) level of protection for wild areas and wildlife species than current EU laws.

The EU has spent more than two years evaluating the nature directives and found that they are "fit for purpose". The laws are highly effective at protecting nature, and not overly burdensome to business, when they are implemented properly and consistently.

The laws work. For nature’s sake, and ours, the focus must now be on properly using these laws to restore nature sites, better connect them, and protect them more strongly from damaging activities.

However, this is not guaranteed.

While we do not yet know what Brexit means in practice, we do know that none of the off-the-shelf arrangements – such as the so-called "Norway" option (which involves staying in the European Economic Area) – incorporate the Nature Directives.

Nature transcends national boundaries. For example, river catchments, mountain ranges and migratory species all cross-national borders. So it is essential that nature protection is coordinated across Europe. 

We are campaigning to make sure that existing nature and wildlife protections are upheld in UK law, and properly implemented, no matter what comes next. 

We also want the UK to continue to cooperate to address these shared problems both with our continental neighbours and internationally.

Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. Home to puffins and other birds.
Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. Home to puffins and other birds.

The opportunity

The State of Nature report 2016 concluded that intensive farming is the activity that has had the biggest negative impact on our nature.

We can't let our precious wildlife, like our rare bees, become isolated in protected sites while the surrounding, farmed countryside, continues to become hostile to nature.

In the UK we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, and hedges and trees have been removed to make way for bigger fields. At the same time pesticides are harming the bees we need to pollinate our crops, and running into our rivers and seas. Our soils – essential to future food production – are being depleted.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was designed to increase post-war food production. Since then various reforms have tried to support farmers to reduce environmental damage but none have gone far enough. 

We’ve ended up with an agricultural policy that has contradictory aims, and so while it’s a big source of funding for environmental schemes, the results have been disappointing – and farmland birds and butterflies continue to decline.

Our relationship with the EU is still uncertain, but it seems inevitable that the UK will leave the CAP. This offers an opportunity for the UK to develop a food and farming policy which actually helps nature and in doing so boosts our long-term food security at the same time as supporting our food producers. 

We can’t let Brexit be used as an excuse to weaken EU protections for nature. Instead we should grasp the opportunity to help nature thrive again in our countryside.

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Red kite flying in blue sky