Nature Directives are saved – but not for us…

It’s great that pressure from the EU population has meant that the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive have been passed as fit for purpose.  A staggering 520,000 people signed up across the EU to save these nature-saving pieces of legislation – more than have ever supported any similar EU petition in the past.  I signed it – I expect you did too.

And that was the result of collaboration between the BirdLife International European network (of which the RSPB is the UK partner), the WWF network (of which WWF-UK is the UK partner), the Friends of the Earth network (guess what? Yes, FoE England, Wales and Northern Ireland and FoE Scotland are the partners) and the European Environmental Bureau.  Over 120 environmental organisations across Europe played their part in mobilising that public response.

As both Frans Timmermans and Karmenu Vella said – the focus must now be on implementation.

Of course, the irony of all this is that although the UK produced well over 100,000 of those half a million signatures we also produced over 17,400,000 votes to leave the EU.  Our pro-nature signatures and our UK advocacy were not wasted if they help protect wildlife in the EU for decades after we have left, but it feels a bit like a parting gift from the UK to the rest of Europe.

As best as we know (because Brexit means Brexit, but what Brexit means nobody knows – or actually everyone seems to know it’s just that they don’t agree!) all EU legislation will simply be transposed into UK law (much of it is already but it’s a pretty complicated area) and so we will sail on with the same protection for our environment as it has ever had – in theory, and initially.

The problems will come later – but maybe not much later. Two main things may happen – first, that national governments (because it might be the Scots, or the Welsh, but I’d bet it’ll be those folks in London who will cause most trouble) may bend the rules, implement the laws badly (think Hen Harrier protection) and degrade their effectiveness through neglect. Once we are out of the EU we will have no ‘higher authority’ to go to, except perhaps the UK courts, to deal with such matters.  Or, future national governments could actually change the laws and make them stronger (slim chance) or weaker (every chance).  The details of the Brexit deal will determine which if either of these options occurs. And who we elect as future governments will determine their outlook on these matters.

So, and we may be getting used to this, the future is certainly uncertain, but also certainly worrying. It’s easier to see the future as being worse than the present than it is to see it being better. It’s all a bit sobering really.  Not very ‘Ho, Ho, Ho! Happy Christmas!’ at all. Sorry.



14 Replies to “Nature Directives are saved – but not for us…”

  1. There is one unforeseen but positive Brexit consequence for Nature that we can celebrate. As the UK leaves the EU, to paraphrase a former chancellor. we will stop “being a brake on the development” of stronger laws and better implementation of existing laws to protect nature in the EU.

    It was the UK (and the Netherlands) who called for the fitness check of the nature directives, in the hope of watering them down and weakening their implementation. It was the UK who has blocked progress with the Soils Directive for the last 15 years or so. The UK has consistently sought to minimise the positive impact of the nature and other environmental directives on nature and the environment.

    So now we are leaving the EU, nature across Europe (except in the UK) is likely to be better off.

  2. I’d say that there is every chance that our future governments will actually change the laws; it is something that is very much in the sights of many of the true-believing Brexiteers. Messrs Gove and Whittingdale have both been inviting the business community to draw up lists of regulations that it would like to see chopped ( Much of what they seem to what to see the back of involves employment rights and health and safety legislation and as an illustration of how doctrine trumps common sense, here’s an example from John Whittingdale: ‘“Some of it will be to do with employment rights. Some of it will be to do with the fact that people might not be allowed to do overtime that they wish to do,” he said, citing lorry drivers as an example.’ – Now there’s something we all need: sleep-deprived lorry drivers hurtling up and down our motorways and dozing at the wheel…!
    I don’t doubt, though, that laws protecting the environment will also quickly come under fire and as an obvious example, I would imagine that the great crested newt’s days of holding up construction projects are numbered. That’s just one that springs to mind but there will be plenty of examples of wildlife protections that inconvenience business in one way or another and therefore stand to be bulldozered out of the way if we let these ideologues have their way. Yesterday Defra was congratulated on this blog for having turned down the NFU’s request for neonicotinoids to be used on some crops but who would bet against a future, post-Brexit, government succumbing to pressure from the agrichem industry and the NFU for unrestricted use of these chemicals?

  3. I think they’ll ”…degrade their effectiveness through neglect” in the short-term, as a subtle way of appeasing the present government’s private land owning constituencies. A lot can be achieved to bolster the votes through benign neglect of existing policies and laws: persecution of birds of prey can be allowed to go unpunished; designated driven grouse moors can be degraded in spite of legal challenges by what’s supposed to be an effective RSPB; foxes can be ripped to bits by packs of hounds and the authorities will turn a blind eye; rivers can be dredged to little good effect despite the Water Framework Directive. A tangible example exists behind my house, where a patch of outstanding GC1 (i.e. short) chalk grassland SSSI, fenced for grazing with tax payers cash a few years ago, has since been allowed to revert to scrub and is now covered in ash and holm oak seedlings. Apparently it’s ”unfavourable, recovering”, which means NE has had its conservation team cut to the bone and can no longer visit such sites with any regularity and hasn’t a clue what’s going on. That’s planned neglect by this government, cutting the Defra and in turn NE budget, making NE staff feel so crap that the decent ones leave.

  4. Mark,

    I agree, in principle, that this is worrying (on paper) as whatever the future once the UK leaves the EU, no one (individual or consortia) will have access to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). And I agree that it is very likely, and very much so over a period of time (measured in decades/ parliamentary terms), that nature conservation laws will wax and wane in terms of their robustness (on paper) and implementation (in practice). But the reality, I believe, will not be as straightforward as this.

    It is an extremely complicated set of affairs, perhaps more so than most other UK/ EU legal relationships as our domestic law (i.e. laws made in Parliament/ devolved assemblies) is also subject to international conventions. Indeed, the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats 1979 (an international convention; not to be confused with anything emanating out of the then EEC) directly led to the EEC’s Wild Birds Directive 1979 and subsequently, the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora 1992 (‘the Habitats Directive’). The UK is signatory to the Berne Convention 1979 in its own right (as well as the EU) and as such, is bound by its requirement, and will be bound by its requirements once we leave the EU.

    It is true to say that the Berne Convention 1979 is not mirrored exactly by the Habitats Directive; and neither the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (which brought in the Birds Directive); nor the Conservation of Habitat and Species Regulations 2010 (as amended) with regards to the Habitats Directive 1992. But there is not a huge gulf separating the respective legislation either. So, one would expect that whatever the outcome when (if) we leave to have some familiarity. Note that on the 4th January 2017, the Environmental Audit Committee ( will report on the outcome of the Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum. I am sure that they will have paid close attention to the outcome of the EU’s Refit programme. And whilst nature conservation law will be fairly low down on the priorities come any negotiations, there may well still be a requirement to implement some elements of the Habitats Directive in to UK law. Indeed, the UK’s Law Commission has recommended implementing a new Wildlife Act (recommended Bill available here: which would incorporate the Habitats Directive (currently transposed via the 2010 Regulations) in to primary UK legislation.

    This is of course, to some extent, uncertain, and uncertainty begats uncertainty. But I am not as pessimistic as others. But hopefully, not naively optimistic either – there is work to do! I acknowledge that we have a Government which is generally averse to nature conservation and is seemingly anti-science. But history, and King Canute, tells us what happens to individuals, society and Governments who ignore science.

    I suppose that what I am saying, in a rather longer prose than my summation; is that the outcome will be less bad than what Remainers fear; and not nearly as good as Brexiteers desire (and thanks to Andrew Marr for providing the inspiration for this phrase).


  5. So this may well be the time for our NGOs to finally accept that we are in a fight. They will have to step up their efforts and make this much more of a political issue. The Labour party are still woefully lacking in seizing on the environment and wildlife issues as a vote winner and using it as another example of the “nasty party”. The issue should be used to demonstrate just how beholden this Government is to vested interests, how outdated it is re animal welfare, how little scientific evidence is used and how wrong the lobbying by powerful groups (farmers!) can be. I am sure that there are lots of us ready to take up the fight but we do need some help from those in political parties who can see what is needed.

    1. Peter,do you realise the scale of your joke.
      Farmers a powerful group
      Look up the number of farmers in UK and compare that to Trade Union Members.
      Which group are causing all the disruption to hundreds of thousands of innocent people at the moment.
      I had better tell you that the farmers are in general working damn hard to provide food for Christmas while all those union bods striking to presumably put Jeremy in charge.
      GOD HELP US.

      1. 55,000
        One of these figures is the number of NFU members.
        The other is the membership of the RMT.
        Can you guess which is which?
        One of them has the ear of Government.
        The other has members who work damn hard to transport us safely around the country.

        1. Nick,first that is a ridiculous comparison,you need to compare total trade union members in UK with total farmers.
          It is also wrong in the assumption that farmers have the ear of Government,certainly farmers do not think that is the case but as usual if some person prints some rubbish about farmers being powerful it suits most people to believe it and you have made it worse by knowingly making a silly comparison.

        2. Nick,seems there are 6.4 trade union members.
          Any fair minded person would expect them to be a more powerful group than the relative small number of farmers by comparison.

  6. I’m optimistic that most of the environmental protections will stay in place one way or another.

    The current Government must already be feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task facing them, and they will be all to aware of the complexity, time and cost of rewriting existing legislation.

    As Mark says, the likely scenario is that the Government will initially transpose all EU legislation into UK law, and then make changes over time (there isn’t really any other way they can do it is there?) This is a mammoth exercise, and my belief is that the environment, along with agriculture, will find itself right at the back of the queue so far as the Governments priorities are concerned. I suspect that by the time the current government will get anywhere near to revising legislation pertaining to agriculture or the environment it will be around 2024 and another general election will be looming (I’m assuming the conservatives will retain power in 2019/2020 by virtue of the oppositions ineptitude). By this time I expect the electorate will have been fully exposed to the full implication of Brexit, the economy will be tatters (much worse than 2008), and the lies and delusions of Messrs Davis, Fox, Gove, Hannon, Johnson & Co will be have fully hung out to dry. As such it will be something of a miracle if even with the help of FPTP, the Conservative party are able to retain even the slimmest of majorities – this regardless of how inept Labour and the Lib Dems continue to be, although I believe by then an effective progressive left wing-alliance will have been formed which will have a big say on the future of the UK’s environment.

    Anyway, despair isn’t an option.

  7. A lot of recent conservation in England has happened simply because of the UK government’s fear of big ‘infraction’ fines from the EU (for not complying with the Directives). Once this ‘threat’ is lifted, then many of our sites will be in trouble, especially if the current cutting and undermining of Natural England continues. The only hope is if NGOs wake up and campaign to ensure that there are strong legal duties on government to look after wildlife, for these to be legally enforceable and there to be a properly resourced independent regulator. This may sound ambitious in the current climate but there is nothing unreasonable about this and unless we think big we will get nowhere.

  8. There is a simple problem being pro Europe. What if Europe created legislation we didn’t like, would it still be a great thing. There is an assumption by leftward leaning individuals that the eu is always going to be more left leaning than our own govt. the problem is that we need to vote in a more socialist greener party that will set our own environment and socialist laws. The last labour govt wasn’t a socialist govt except for spending on public services.

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