Wildlife and the EU – it’s about responsibility, not power

Monday 7th March 2016

Our environment is precious, fragile and in peril. Only by taking more responsibility for our negative impacts on wildlife and investing time, money and resolution into creating and maintaining space for wildlife to thrive can we humans hope to have a healthy and wealthy future.  The Brexit debate must include consideration of which institutions have shown that they can be trusted with the important responsibility of environmental care; because power wielded without responsibility is harmful, not helpful.

And what greater indication of responsibility and compassion is there than looking after invertebrates – the small things that run the planet.  Which political structures have shown they can be trusted to be the best custodian of life on earth?

Wildlife doesn’t have borders

Britain has some special and unique wildlife, but it is mostly constituted of species that have wider distributions.  Many British species migrate, spending part of their lives in warmer climes, before they, or (as is the case of most migrant insects) their descendants, return to the UK.  Very few of the species that lived here during the last ice age still live here, an interesting exception being subterranean invertebrates such as the British cave shrimp.  Our current fauna and flora largely arrived in the UK from more southern realms after the ice age.

In the wider picture, our fauna and flora is European and its health depends on how well it is looked after throughout Europe.

Many of the most important drivers of damage to wildlife are also trans-national, including; nitrate deposition from air pollution; unsustainable sea fisheries (most of the catch is invertebrates, scampi, cockles, mussels, etc.) and climate change.

It makes sense for scientists across Europe to collaborate to understand environmental impacts and for politicians to work together to set objectives and find solutions.

A level playing field for wildlife

Identifying environmental risks and solutions is in the first place, an intellectual exercise, but the introduction of effective solutions requires people to change their ways; stopping damaging activities and introducing better approaches.  Unfortunately, individual people and companies tend not to prioritise these changes, and they either happen too slowly or not at all.  Voluntary schemes that aim to engage the players, change behaviour and meet policy targets are a common approach to environmental issues, but voluntary schemes that achieve adequate outcomes are like hen’s teeth. 78% of voluntary schemes start by setting inadequate targets and only 23% of voluntary schemes then achieve those.

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan, a largely voluntary scheme involving national and local governments, NGOs, scientists and landowners was dismantled after 2007 by the UK Government, who did not want to be held responsible for meeting biological targets for reversing the decline of endangered habitats and species, particularly as the numbers of species under threat of extinction was increasing.

Tackling biodiversity loss and many other environmental issues can only realistically be addressed through law and regulation.  There are many advantages to this approach, including greater clarity, fairer application and a level playing field.  The latter is very important as it prevents the cheats from benefitting to the detriment of those trying to behave responsibly.  This applies to all levels, from local to international – without regulation, companies and countries trying to do the right thing can be financially undermined by the less principled, even the fear of losing the edge can ensure that the lowest common denominator prevails and the solution is not achieved.

Brits changing the story

EU regulations are often cast as being done to us, but in truth the laws are set by all European citizens, including us, through elected national governments and elected European Members of Parliament, and while the laws may not always be perfect, we share responsibility for their faults just as much as we do for their benefits.

Indeed, there have been many examples of Brits taking a leading role in improving our environment by persuading other countries to commit to change.

Caroline Jackson, the Cornish MEP, championed the then controversial and innovative landfill legislation that committed Member States to recycling 50% of waste by 2020.  We now take recycling for granted. Then, from 1999 to 2004, Caroline chaired the EU Parliament’s powerful Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy (ENVI) and in that role steered through the Water Framework Directive that commits us to restoring European aquatic ecology to a good status.  Current UK MEPs on ENVI are doing sterling work promoting a better environment for EU citizens; a prime example being Catherine Bearder, who amongst other things is promoting an EU wide pollinator initiative to save bees.

UK Ministers have also used EU negotiating to protect wildlife. For instance in 2013, Richard Benyon MP made progress towards sustainable fisheries when he led a successful campaign to stop the practice of throwing dead bycatch back into the sea.

British born civil servants working for the EC have also managed to transform the fate of wildlife across the EU.  For instance when Stanley Johnson, former MEP and dad of Boris, was Senior Adviser to the EC Director General of Environment in the early 1990s, he was the originator of the Habitats and Species Directive, arguably the most powerful wildlife legislation in the world and valued greatly by EU citizens.  When the Directive appeared to be coming under threat last year, over 500,000 members of the public asked for it to be preserved, the biggest ever response to an EU consultation.

The reticent UK

While British politicians in Brussels have been introducing regulations that have transformed wildlife and environmental custodianship across Europe, back in Britain their counterparts and superiors have very largely not matched their zeal for a better future.

The UK has repeatedly behaved petulantly, trying to avoid change and going to lengths to do the absolutely minimum possible to comply with EU legislation.  The UK Government has attempted to face down legal challenges from its own citizens for not properly implementing the Habitats and Species Directive, failing to address ecological damage to freshwaters, failing to tackle air pollution and failing to enable proper access to environmental justice.  The UK is also to be found blocking new EU efforts to improve air quality, ban harmful pesticides, introduce legislation to protect soils and confirm new measures to check that candidate pesticides do not harm bumblebees or solitary bees.

My experience of working to achieve change for wildlife in the UK reflects this reticence.  The British civil service seem to consider it their duty to make problems disappear. This involves in the first place telling you that you are mistaken and there is no problem, if you are able to marshal an absolutely indisputable pile of evidence they will then attempt to reassure you that the problem is now in hand and will be resolved by current efforts. This resistance results in more friction than should be necessary.

In contrast, I have found the European Commission much easier to deal with – they have genuine expertise in their policy areas, they are not afraid to be ambitious for their objectives and want to see progress; they will tell you what is blocking progress and how this might be addressed. The weakness of the system is that the big EC departments tend to be quite independent and don’t necessarily agree (e.g. over the Common Agriculture Policy), so cross sectorial policy progress can be frustrating.  However, the EU population is diverse and often displays a wide scatter of ideological positions. To circumnavigate these political complexities, the EC routinely resorts to science and evidence to underpin decision making – this is generally good for wildlife.

I would not want to give the impression that the UK Governments do nothing to help wildlife: many civil servants in all four countries who are doing the best that they can with very limited resources to tackle biodiversity loss.  There are also quite a few politicians who are working positively to benefit wildlife.  However, the influence of the Treasury and Number 10 in recent years has been used to block environmental improvements.  For instance, recent efforts by ministers to increase the proportion of the UK’s Common Agriculture Payments that are available to benefit wildlife were rejected by the Prime Minister’s office, who made sure that the NFU’s demands, that the UK minimised its environmental budget and maximise the hand-outs to farmers, were met.  This means that the UK pays less to benefit wildlife, including pollinators, per hectare of agricultural land than any other EU member state (see Graph 1).

It is not only in relation to investing in the health of the wider countryside where the resolve of the UK Government looks suspect.  The Habitats and Species Directive requires Member States to designate and protect Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for threatened habitats and species, including in the UK twelve species of terrestrial invertebrates.  Unfortunately no other EU state has designated so small a proportion of its land surface (see Graph 2).  SACs in the UK are sparse and small, significant populations of endangered species such as the White-clawed crayfish, Freshwater pearl mussel and Little whirlpool ram’s-horn snail lie outside their tightly drawn boundaries.

It should be noted that most environmental decisions in the UK are taken at the level of the four national governments, but despite some fine words in Wales, none have managed to buck the lack of leadership on the environment from Westminster.  Indeed the NFU Scotland is proud that there is less money available to Scottish farmers for wildlife efforts than in any other region of Europe.

Big is best?

Big is certainly the trend in business, hugely powerful multinational businesses and a multitude of industry bodies, all set up with slick PR and lobbying departments, abound.  Having worked on the environmentally damaging neonicotinoid insecticides I have seen first-hand how UK politicians and civil servants are enthralled by the agrochemical businesses.  Only the EC has been able to stand up to Bayer and Syngenta, introduce a partial ban on the bee killing insecticides and take the inevitable court cases on the chin.

Big business seems to run rings around the UK Government.  In the last couple of years the fossil fuel industry has trumped the fledgling solar and wind industries in securing Government succour.  The reduction in support for commercial solar power has had a huge impact on a fledgling UK industry with which Buglife had been working with very positively to ensure that solar farms do not harm wildlife and maximise pollinator rich habitats (see this joint guidance).

The EU gives us hope that people power can curtail the worst extremes of unbridled market forces put the best interest of the population, not the shareholders, first.

Wildlife faces uncertainty as regulation becomes relegation

The legal implications for wildlife of the UK leaving the EU are unclear, it depends greatly on the extent to which any subsequent trade deal will require the UK to comply with the EU’s environmental laws.  However, while the European Court of Justice (another British innovation) is not part of the EU, without the direct application of EU Directives to the UK Government it will be much harder for a UK citizen to have recourse to justice if he or she feels that the Government has failed the environment.

Whatever the detail of the future relationship, it is likely that all the legislation currently stemming from EU Directives will have to be discarded or rewritten and passed as national laws.  In addition, functions such as pesticide regulation that are largely now undertaken at an EU level will need new national legislation.  This is likely to result in a great slew of legislative change.  Developing lots of legislation will be a significant cost to the four UK Governments and will bring a long period of uncertainty and confusion.  Big business will take this in their stride they are already heavily resourced and embedded in national systems and can easily pass on to their customers the comparatively small costs associated with influencing the new legislation. NGOs on the other hand are not able to easily resource a big increase in workload; they are likely to be swamped.  Unable to focus on all sectors in all four countries at once, many environmental protections, hard won by NGOs over the last 30 years, are likely to be eroded.

Who do you trust to wield environmental power responsibly?

This is the nub, why would we trust the UK Governments to look after the environment when their recent environmental record is so feeble?  Will a Government, that has repeatedly tried to shirk responsibilities and has become dependent on the EC and EU to provide leadership on the environment, change its spots and suddenly champion environmental improvements?

I find it difficult to believe that they will, even in the long term, and definitely not in the short term.  What seems more likely is that Brexit will result in a vast amount of work, less environmental protection, more influence over environmental policy from big business, and less recourse for British citizens to secure environmental protection through the courts.

Perhaps most sadly if the UK leaves the EU, then children who want to change the world will not be able to follow in the footsteps of Caroline Jackson, Stanley Johnson or Catherine Bearder and steer a whole continent towards a better future.

This is why Buglife’s position, as the only EU charity committed to conserving all invertebrates, is that bugs are better off with the UK leading and participating fully in the EU.

Case Studies – How being in the EU has helped Buglife to help bugs

Roman snail

This is our biggest terrestrial snail, the size of a golf ball.  Introduced to the UK for food by the Romans about 2000 years ago, it is now a very localised British species occurring mainly on chalk grasslands.  In 1992, the snail was protected by Stanley Johnson’s Habitats and Species Directive.  Being listed on the Habitats and Species Directive means that Member States have a responsibility to maintain the species in a favourable status.   In the case of the Roman snail member states only have to act to protect the snail if their monitoring indicates that exploitation will cause the population to decline or is preventing it from recovering.

In France, this is the classic l’escargot and concerns that it was disappearing from areas where it was exploited resulted in the introduction of local legislation that restricts the taking of the snails from the wild for eating.  Not only has this helped secure the future of the ‘escargots de Bourgogne’ it has also enabled a flourishing snail farming sector to develop.

In the early 2000s there were a number of worrying incidents in the UK, the worst near Bristol where populations of this big, obvious snail were taken away in carrier bags for sale to local restaurants.  Buglife and the Conchological Society campaigned to protect the snail from exploitation, the legal compulsion on the UK Government to act as a result of EU legislation made the pathway smooth (if drawn out) and in 2008 the Roman snail was given protection in England under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Since then, a small number of incidents of snail collecting have been reported to the authorities and the legal clarity of the situation has ensured that the media are able to help Police to enforce the law.

In 2013, Buglife even helped to make sure that a population of Roman snails in St Albans were protected from a new access road.

Meanwhile in Eastern Europe much more abundant populations of the snail allow commercial exploitation to continue.  In the case of the Roman snail the EU has established the framework for member states to take the action necessary to save the species, without creating unnecessary bureaucracy.

Scarce large blue

The Scarce large blue butterfly does not live in the UK, but is protected across the EU by the Habitats and Species Directive. In 2002, while assisting the police with a wildlife crime case Buglife discovered Scarce large blues for sale that appeared to have been caught and killed illegally in France, perhaps to order.

Checking the national legislation, it was clear that there were no UK laws in place to prevent the sale of non-native plants or animals protected from trade by the Habitats and Species Directive.  It seemed illogical that the UK should be harbouring a trade in illegally caught wildlife so we asked the EC if they agreed that the trade should be illegal in the UK.  The EC legal department opened a complaint file against the UK on the issue.  The UK took no action to close the loophole until after the EC took the UK to court in 2005, whereupon the UK was found to have failed on several counts to adequately transpose the Habitats and Species Directive.  The international trade in EU protected species was finally banned in the UK in 2007.

For species like the Scarce large blue the EU has stopped the fencing of illegally caught endangered species from one country in a neighbouring country.

Little whirlpool ram’s-horn snail

This tiny aquatic snail was added to the Habitats Directive in 2004 when Bulgaria joined the EU.  In the UK it is highly endangered and has disappeared from all but three areas – Pevensey Levels, the Broads and marshes adjacent to the River Arun in Sussex.

Despite its legal status, the UK Government was slow to take any action to establish protection for the snail.  However, in 2010, after pressure from Buglife and the Conchological Society the Government decided to designated three SACs for the snail that cover a significant (but still inadequate) part of the UK population.  Land protection is not in itself sufficient because in the UK the main threat to the snail comes from modern mechanical ditch clearance methods that leave deep denuded channels.  To address this threat, Buglife and Natural England agreed that a licencing system was required.  As of 2015, landowners clearing their ditches in areas where the snail occurs must use sensitive ditch clearance techniques that leave areas of vegetated ditch habitat in which the snail can persist.  The landowner then must report this ditch clearance to Natural England, not reporting means that the licence to kill little snails does not apply and the landowner could be prosecuted.

The next step will be for Natural England to survey all the cleared ditches to make sure that in the long term these sensitive management methods are enabling the snail to continue to survive, if it isn’t then the protection will have to ratchet up.

Under the Habitats and Species Directive, the UK must monitor the status of this snail and formally report progress to the EC every seven years. This makes it difficult for national governments to turn a blind eye to endangered species, however small, if they are listed on the Directive.

We have undertaken an assessment of Buglife’s compliance with Charity Commission and OSCR guidance on the EU referendum .