Habitats Directive – Imperfect, but still best in the world

Friday 22nd May 2015

The EU has started a review of the Habitats and Birds Directives, there are profound concerns that the intention of the UK and other national Governments is to weaken the directives so that economic considerations will more easily trump wildlife. Wildlife charities are campaigning to improve how the directives are implemented, but are firm that the time is not right to open up the actual laws for review.

Beautiful Law

The Habitats and Birds Directives have two main benefits for invertebrates, both spring from the lists of protected species and habitats in the Directives. Firstly, countries must designate Natura 2000 sites, think super protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest, to provide safe areas for the listed habitats and the habitats of the listed species (Annex 2 list), secondly countries must take action to protect species listed on Annexes 4 and 5 from capture, killing, disturbance and damage to their resting and breeding places – and to ensure that all listed species are all maintained in ‘Favourable Conservation Status’.

The beauty of the Directives is the strength and fairness that arises from their careful and elegant legal wording. It matters not if you are a highly glamorous lynx or a small, rare snail that lives in ditches and can only be identified by experienced experts, the Directives insist that they are given a place to live, their populations are maintained on a long-term basis, their natural range is neither being reduced nor is likely to be reduced for the foreseeable future, and there continues to be a sufficiently large area of habitat available. Countries have to monitor the populations of the species and habitat against rigorous criteria and report how they are faring.

This legislation is the nearest any society has come to a legal framework that guarantees a future for other species, in effect it gives them a right not to be driven to extinction.

Ugly Threat

The implementation of the Directives has not been perfect, in the marine environment they have not been rigorously applied and damaging activities still progress on Natura 2000 sites.  In the UK there has been a narrow approach to the implementation; ‘do the minimum possible’ has been the mantra. As a result we have the smallest percentage of our land surface protected of any European country. Indeed unless you are one of the tiny number of species actually named on the Natura site designation papers you may not be looked after at all.

Buglife has helped to improve the UK implementation the Directive, we identified that the UK was allowing the trade of protected species collected illegally elsewhere in Europe. Typically the UK refused to protect such species from sale, allowing the market to thrive, until the European Court ordered them to close the loop hole in October 2005.

The latest report on how the listed species and habitats are faring came out this week. Only 23% of species are in Favourable Conservation Status, as usual the bugs tend to be doing worse than the flowers and fluffy animals, and a shocking 16% of habitats – 77% of habitats are still disappearing or deteriorating. Conservation organisations, 100 in the UK alone, are united in calling for this to improve, but are also united in pointing at national delivery as the key problem, not the wording of the legislation.

The UK Government is seen as being hostile to the Directives, George Osborne has railed against them, accusing them of damaging the economy; the Conservative Party election manifesto pointedly commits to “maintain national protections” while omitting to mention any European environmental protection areas. Indeed, an otherwise very optimistic analysis of the Conservative Government’s plans for the environment in the Telegraph states that “The Government will also seek to emasculate European directives that provide the main protection for British wildlife. Liz Truss – the reappointed, but hitherto unremarkable, Environment Secretary – is not expected to provide much resistance. But, then, nature conservation has never featured much in the Prime Minister’s greenery.”

The UK is not alone in wanting to see the Directives weakened, the Dutch and German governments may be strong allies.

The List Conundrum

It is widely accepted that the lists of species and habitats in the annexes of the Habitats Directive are imperfect. As knowledge improves, particularly through the production of EU Red Lists of endangered plants and animals more species are identified that are in urgent need of habitat or direct protection.

Many experts want to see the lists reviewed so that the benefits of the Directive are better focussed on those species that are in greatest need of help.

The mismatch between the listed species and their EU Red List status is clearly shown by recent analyses for butterflies and dragonflies. Of the 30 species of butterfly listed in Annexes 2 and/or 4 of the Habitats Directive only 11 are on the EU Red List. On the other hand of the 32 threatened butterfly species on the Red List only 11 are on the annexes of the Habitats Directive. The same holds true for dragonflies with 16 species on Annexes 2 and/or 4 of which only 3 are Red Listed. 22 dragonfly species are considered threatened in the EU Red List, but only 3 are listed in the Annexes (Maes et al. 2013).

The situation is even more dramatic for the molluscs where 96% of the threatened species on the EU Red List are not listed on the Annexes and c.60% of the species do not even occur on any Natura site (Mary Seddon, IUCN, pers comm).

There are many other gaps, for instance despite the widespread plight of pollinators there are very few listed on the Annexes, and notably not a single bee is listed on the Habitats Directive.

The recent IUCN EU Bee Red List states that we should “Increase the protection of habitats supporting high bee diversity and endemism, and also those that act as source habitats for bees, with particular focus on Mediterranean and montane areas and species-rich grasslands.”

So is it therefore urgent that we review the lists of species now? After deliberation we have concluded that this would not be wise.

There are three reasons why now is not the right time to revise the lists of species on the Habitats Directive.

        Firstly – reviewing the lists will divert scarce resources from implementing the Directives, it is more important that this review process sets out clear ways to improve how the legislation is implemented, rather than introduce new requirements for additional protected Natura sites that would arise from revising the lists. This distraction could result in uncertainty and further failure to implement.

        Secondly – the evidence base is not yet sufficiently complete for a robust review of the lists, there are no EU Red Lists yet for hoverflies, ground beetles, grasshoppers and crickets, moths, mayflies, stoneflies, or spiders, for instance. It is not possible yet to predict the effect on the network of protected sites of adding species or habitats, this should be better understood before the criteria for reviewing the lists are determined.

        Thirdly – the Directives and the lists provide long term benefits and as such are less likely to be improved if reviewed at a time of short term economic focus, there will be less finance to do a good job and more opposition if the list review is undertaken in the next 5 years.

So what do we want the EU to do for Bugs?

There are many potentially very positive outcomes from this review of the Nature Directives, particularly in relation to stepping up the actions and ensuring that species and habitats are moving towards being in Favourable Conservation Status.

While the time is not right to review the species lists Buglife does believe that this will be required. A number of steps can be taken that would set the foundations for a review of the species lists, including:-

         Establishing a clear list review process that will develop the criteria for an evidence-led approach to reviewing the lists.

         Speeding up the Red Listing process – So that we are able to better address conservation need on a rigorous prioritised basis of threat and endangerment this process should be completed for all well recorded groups of organisms by 2020.

         Mapping Important Invertebrate Areas – The European Court of Justice has repeatedly acknowledged that BirdLife International’s inventory of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) is a valid basis of reference in assessing whether Member States have classified a sufficient number and size of territories as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive.  It is time that we had a similar defined areas for all well recorded taxonomic groups – the most notable gap is Important Invertebrate Areas – Buglife has secured a project to define these in UK countries, but this should be expanded into an EU wide initiative.

In addition we would like to see the EU support and develop improvements to monitoring wildlife, recording biological data and assessing status. Identifying which species need to be conserved, and monitoring those species, are a basic foundation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Gaps in knowledge about the current status of species and habitats are apparent in EU Red List Assessments and Article 17 reports. The EU should put greater emphasis and resources towards improving the gathering and collating of biological data and converting that data into a more taxonomically complete set of EU Red Lists, and more certain assessments of progress towards achieving conservation aims.

Of course there are other actions that the EU and its member states could improve that will also help bugs – particularly, better pesticide regulations, improved soil protection, less chemical pollution, reduced light pollution, and better implementation of the Water Framework Directive (including small water bodies).

Finally we believe that it is time that we had an EU Pollinator Strategy – With failing pollination services across the EU, several member states are establishing national pollinator strategies – there should also be an EU strategy.  This would cover protected areas, municipal policy, agrochemical regulation and agri-environment schemes (including organic farming) – see more in Buglife’s Pollinator Manifesto.

You can help!

If you want to help to protect and improve the implementation of the best laws for wildlife in the world you have a choice – you can fill in the answers yourself on the EC’s webpages or you can do it with one click by going to this website set up by wildlife NGOs across the EU to give standard answers in support of nature.