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What will 'divorce' mean for wildlife?

Posted: Wednesday 6th September 2017 by DevonWildlifeTrust

What protections will our precious seascapes and landscapes enjoy in the future? Photo; Paul Naylor,

With the bill heralding the UK's divorce from the EU making its way through parliament, Devon Wildlife Trust's Chief Executive Harry Barton says now is not the time to debate past rights and wrongs, instead we have to look to secure a future for our precious wildlife.

With so much media attention on the somewhat fractious debate between the UK and EU over “divorce payments”, trade and the like, it is tempting to believe that any thought for the environment has completely disappeared from the minds of the negotiators. But behind the scenes, crucial decisions are being made in Westminster right now that could shape the future of our wildlife and natural heritage for a generation.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is beginning its journey through Parliament. The Bill will receive its second reading over the next few days, before it is expected to become law later in the year. OK, I admit this doesn’t sound like terribly exciting stuff. But everyone who wants our children and grandchildren to inherit a natural world that is not an impoverished version of what we see today needs to be concerned.

Maintaining strength

Why? Most of the existing laws that protect our wildlife and environment are tied to our membership of the European Union. This includes our strongest protection for special wildlife sites and effective regulations on pollution of our seas and rivers. So the act of leaving the European Union will create huge gaps in these crucial safeguards unless something at least as comprehensive and effective is created to take their place. My point is not to debate the rights or wrongs of leaving the European Union, that decision has been made, it’s about the need now to strengthen the protection we afford our natural environment.

We know that our wildlife is continuing to decline, despite a lot of good progress. This is true whether you look at groups of species, such as birds or plants, or at particular habitats on land or in our seas. The obvious conclusion is that our existing protections don’t go far enough and they’re not always enforced strictly enough. If we want to reverse the decline, more of the same isn’t good enough. We need better, and soon.

High brown fritillary. Photo, Mark Ogden

What future legal protection will be provided for our fragile nature including endangered species such the high brown fritillary? Photo, Mark Ogden

Trouble comes in threes

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has recently made some encouraging statements about the government’s commitment to environmental legislation. And it is fair to say that there is a lot to welcome in the Withdrawal Bill. But there is a lot that is less heartening too. Here are three things which I believe are cause for particular concern.

First, there is no guarantee that all the EU environmental principles will be incorporated in the new UK-based laws. This may sound very esoteric, but the principles, such as the polluter pays, set a moral framework that underpins the technical aspects of the law, and is crucial in guiding how laws are interpreted. Without them, the public good intended by the law risks being compromised.

Secondly, laws are only effective if they are enforced and if there is come-back on those who transgress them. Yet there is currently no guarantee that there will be public bodies that are funded and empowered to police any new laws and follow up appropriately when they aren’t. This does not bode well at a time when pressures on the natural world are mounting year on year.

Thirdly, and worryingly for democracy, the Bill gives the government lots of powers to change laws without having to consult parliament. This could mean that important laws are amended, weakened or even abolished without the public even knowing about it.

Turning love into action

There is ample evidence to show that people from all backgrounds - however they voted in the EU referendum - love wildlife. We feel better and learn better if we live in a healthy natural environment. And there is no real substance to arguments that protecting our wildlife gets in the way of increasing our quality of life or securing our economy. So why compromise?

The Withdrawal Bill gives us a unique chance to come up with something even better that the existing EU protections. We have an opportunity to tell our legislators that we think people in Devon, the South West and all across the UK deserve a world-class environment: clean air, clear water, a stable climate, healthy seas and thriving wildlife in the places we love. Let’s grasp it.

You can speak up for the UK's wildlife, it's as simple as clicking here


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