By Tony Whitbread
In March this year, Sussex Wildlife Trust took the decision not to campaign for either side of the EU Referendum. Instead we supported The Wildlife Trust in their presentation of an evidence-based view on what remaining in or departing from the European Union would mean for UK wildlife.[i] And from a Sussex perspective, we set about reviewing our evidence and experience of how EU policy and law has contributed to Sussex Wildlife Trust’s work to achieve our charitable objectives.
I presented this information through these weekly blogs, and in May I wrote to the Chief Executives and Chairmen of ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ and ‘Vote Leave’, to our 16 local MPs and 10 South East England MEPs, inviting them to tell me how any benefits to Sussex wildlife from current EU policy and laws would be maintained after the Referendum.
I will be publishing the responses that I received and will try to formulate a conclusion to my experiences. But first I wanted to summarise what I think EU policy and legislation has done for us. How it’s contributed to our work and affected Sussex wildlife up to now, and what leaving or remaining in the EU is likely to mean for the Trust and our wildlife in the coming years.
- The ‘nature directives’ – the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive – are clearly of significant benefit to Sussex wildlife. These are two of the most valuable and effective tools we have to protect important areas for species and habitats which are under threat, and to safeguard species in the wider countryside from harm. The key objective to achieve and maintain ‘favourable conservation status’ for habitats and species of European importance is a powerful weapon in making sure that development pressures on Sussex landscapes and our marine environments take proper account of at least a proportion of our wildlife assets. It has proved vital in our work to influence strategic planning and in development control casework.The Natura 2000 network comprises sites “selected to ensure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats”[ii] The 20 Natura 2000 sites in Sussex (6 SPAs and 14 SACs) give the strongest protection to 9,000 hectares of Sussex countryside, coastal and sea areas. The level of protection far exceeds that afforded by national wildlife legislation. The same goes for ‘European Protected Species’ (e.g. little ramshorn whirlpool snails, smooth snakes, dormice and bats). The problem that concerns me is that if the UK leaves the EU, then the nature directives no longer apply (even if we negotiate an affiliation with the EU), and that important tool disappears.
- The two broad policies governing EU marine fisheries (CFP) and agriculture (CAP) have had negative consequences for the environment. Progressive reforms in both areas over the last 20 years have rectified some of the worst environmental effects, and both the CFP and CAP are heading in the right direction. The various formulations of agri-environment schemes have delivered major benefits to limited areas of the farmed landscape in Sussex wildlife, including some of our own Nature Reserves[iii] such as grazing heathlands at Iping & Stedham Commons, and chalk downland at Malling Down and Southerham. I’ve already mentioned that I think the Environmentally Sensitive Areas initiative (as part of the CAP) and the Habitats Directive were the saviour of chalk grasslands in Sussex.[iv]
- The Water Framework Directive(WFD) is a key component of EU environmental policy with strong links to wildlife and the natural environment of Sussex. The WFD takes a long view on getting our water quality and associated wetland habitats – all of them, from ponds and rivers, to groundwater, estuaries and inshore marine environments – to a ‘good ecological status’. The standard is vitally important as it impacts on human health and the health of the water and wetland ecosystems. It should provide the conditions in which wildlife can thrive. The WFD gives EU member states 27 years to achieve this, recognising that it’s a challenging objective that can’t be dealt with overnight. We’re still a long way from meeting the WFD standards in many Sussex water bodies, but the framework directive has set the standards and obliged our public authorities to evaluate and monitor the state of our rivers, estuaries and seas much better than previously, and central Government has made it a priority task to meet the defined standards.
Other key issues of EU environment policy that I explored and which have significant implications for Sussex wildlife are climate change and the ‘precautionary principle’. The first of these is driven by global objectives to keep temperature rise below 2oC (over pre-industrial levels) to avoid dramatic consequences for the world’s weather systems and patterns. The UK has been an important advocate for climate change policy, with commitments enshrined in the 2008 Climate Change Act. This has been an important lead for action within the EU. Something we can be proud of, and I sincerely hope will continue.
In contrast, the UK has not been a strong supporter of the precautionary principle. This essentially provides a protocol to assess environmental and health risks. It’s described by the European Commission as a measure which “enables rapid response in the face of a possible danger to human, animal or plant health, or to protect the environment. In particular, where scientific data do not permit a complete evaluation of the risk, recourse to this principle may, for example, be used to stop distribution or order withdrawal from the market of products likely to be hazardous.”[v]
The UK Government and pesticide manufacturers were not enthusiastic to see the precautionary principle invoked in 2013 to place a moratorium on the use of a group of neonicotinoid insecticides suspected of damaging bee populations. My view is that caution is critically important in this instance, so I’m pleased that we have the EU institutions taking a stand that requires proper assessment of chemicals and other products before they are released into the environment. It would have been so much better if that approach had been taken to organochlorine pesticides which became so widespread in agriculture last century with such devastating impacts to our wildlife.
[iii] Sussex Wildlife Trust receives income for some of its land management operations which are eligible for Single Farm Payments (SFP), and countryside stewardship support through the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) and Higher Level Scheme (HLS). This income amounted to 7.75% of our total turnover in 2015/16 and as these payments are 50% funded through the CAP, we received £174,500 from EU funds (approximately 3.9% of our turnover).