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Devon's wildlife and the European Union

Posted: Thursday 2nd June 2016 by HarryBarton

Ancient oak woodland on Dartmoor, protected under the EU Habitats DirectiveAncient oak woodland on Dartmoor, protected under the EU Habitats Directive

The EU Referendum is a pivotal moment for the future of our natural environment argues DWT Chief Executive Harry Barton

Today something very welcome and unusual happened. The Prime MinisterDWT Chief Executive Harry Barton gave a speech in praise of the natural environment! I say unusual for two reasons; first, because recently our political leaders have been more inclined to refer to the environment as a barrier to economic growth than something to celebrate; and secondly because until now the whole subject has been virtually absent from the EU debate.

A poorly framed debate

In my view, the political bun fight around the Referendum has manifestly failed to make the pros and cons of EU membership clear. This is a complex issue and any decision a voter makes on 23 June will involve thoughts about sovereignty, the economy and a range of issues often personal to the individual.

But the tenor of the debate so far - the deluge of exaggerated warnings and half-truths churned out at an ever more frenzied pace – has not helped those of us who are trying to make a rational, long term decision. It’s tempting just to switch off – as I frequently find myself doing.

When considering the natural environment, however, I believe the risks are quite clear.

Many people have been calling for more facts. As I contemplate my own decision about the EU, there are three stark facts that are at the forefront of my mind.

First fact: if the UK leaves the EU, three pieces of environmental legislation will no longer apply in this country. These are the Habitats Directive, the Birds Directive and the Bathing Water Directive.

Second fact: the Habitats Directive alone protects about a thousand rare species of plant and animals across Europe and over eight million hectares of land and surrounding seas in the UK.

Third fact: Those advocating a Brexit have yet to make any firm commitments to protecting the natural environment or to offer any plausible alternatives to the legal protections that could be lost if we leave the EU.

Some Obvious Conclusions

What conclusions do I draw from all of this? Well, the obvious one is that our current political leadership – whether they are advocating ‘in’ or ‘out’ – has been woefully slow to recognise that the natural environment needs to be a central issue in any EU debate. Regardless of whether or not we stay as part of the EU, we have to ensure that protection for wildlife, and the environment it relies on, is firmly on any political agenda.

Secondly, those senior politicians that are advocating a Brexit must now set out their stall and tell the voting public how the natural environment would be protected if the leave campaign wins. It is time to stand up and be counted.

Finally, in the absence of any robust alternative plans or cast-iron assurances, it seems that current environmental legislation via the EU– with all its undoubted shortcomings – offers the best chance of safeguarding Devon’s wildlife.

‘The future of the UK and its natural environment is much too important to be lost in partisan and confusing debate.’

The environment is only one thing to consider in this complex and confusing debate. But I am concerned there is a real risk that many people who care about wildlife and the environment simply disengage from the whole process and don’t vote at all.

This is particularly the case with younger people, who will, after all, inherit the natural world and the consequences of the decisions we make. And yet the decision the UK makes on 23rd June will have huge implications for the wildlife we love.

Whatever your views, consider the natural environment and make sure you vote

The future of the UK and its natural environment is much too important to be ignored.

For more information on the EU's impact on nature and wildlife see the report by the Institute of European Environmental Policy, commissioned byThe Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and WWF-UK:  

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