Is the EU good for wildlife? Hell, yes!

Has the EU been good for wildlife or not?  My view, based on 25 years of working for the RSPB and so being closer than most people to the evidence and practice behind this question is a definitive ‘Yes, hell yes!’.  My view is based on evidence (that’s coming soon in this post) but I notice that whenever I voice this view the usual response is ‘but what about Malta/Cyprus/Spain?’ or some other, usually Mediterranean, country where birds are killed illegally.

People tend to fight evidence with anecdotes – we probably all do it, but those with closed minds are all the more likely to do it. Of course there are failures of the implementaton of the Birds (and other) Directives – the widespread, deliberate, systematic illegal killing of Hen Harriers in the UK is a very good example – but what is the overall picture?

Back in 2007 some clever RSPB and BirdLife International authors (with collaborators from Edinburgh University) looked at the effectiveness of the Birds Directive acrsss the board in terms of species trends (paper published in Science).  The results are pretty clear – species given Annex 1 protection do better than those without that protection – and they do better in proportion to the % land cover of Special Protection Areas designated under the Birds Directive. And a more recent review of similar data concurs with the findings previously reported.

So regardless of non-compliance, back-sliding, inefficiency and bad luck, those birds with the highest EU protection do quite well.  EU species protection is a success – at least for birds.

Of course the CAP has been a disaster for wildlife, but, as mentioned earlier, this is not the fault of the EU (not completely anyway (and anyway we have been part of the EU not outside it for over four decades)) but the fault of the member states.  The UK, and since devolution its constituent countries, has done a very poor job in transferring EU policy into effective schemes that work for wildlife.  This is largely because of the failure of the wildlife conservation organisations (I was there at the time!) to dent the power (inexplicable power) of the farming unions in setting the agenda for weak environmental measures.

So, has the EU on balance been a good thing for wildlife? Yes, it has.  The failures of the CAP are partly systemic but very largely, particularly in more recent years, failures of domestic implementation but the successes of EU-wide species protection and site protection have been very real.

If we leave the EU, what will happen? Well, it is up to us, but if we leave it up to this Conservative government then we the danger is that we will not see a great English agriculture policy (despite Michael Gove’s fine words) because the farming lobby, despite being ill-informed and illogical, still holds sway.  That would be my expectation even though Brexit, in this case, represents an opportunity to do better; the world is full of missed opportunities for environmental progress and the wildlife conservation organisations suffer from (in the words of Andrew Sells, optimism bias).  But I would expect us to lose the protection given by the Birds and Habitats Directives.  The watering down of environmental protection has always been an aim of the hard-line Brexiteers within the Conservative Party.

So, if we go ahead with Brexit (bad idea!) then my prediction of what will actually happen is that ‘we’ will decide to reduce the species protection to birds such as Hen Harrier, Gannet, Knot etc and to the sites on which they rely and do a poor job on coming up with a decent agriculture policy because this government will bend to developers and to farming interests. Our wildlife, not just birds, will lose out big time.  We’ll see.

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29 Replies to “Is the EU good for wildlife? Hell, yes!”

  1. Once again I am in total agreement with you Mark. As far as I am aware this Government have made no commitment that the EU Directives like the Birds and Habitats Directives will remain in place albeit under UK Law or that there will be any judicial recourse for damage to our wildlife. As I have mentioned before, I am sure one of the hidden agendas of the majority of the Tories s to ditch these Directives completely and to therefore reduce wildlife protection substantially.As you say we have fine words from Mr Gove but little or no action. I just do not believe anything that is said by politicians especially this Governments politicians.
    Besides our wildlife loosing probably most if not all of its protection it is also set to loose all the money it receives from the EU Life Fund Grants which I believe amount to about £400 million per annum. If anyone thinks this Government will make this up then they are living in cloud cuckoo land.
    As I have always forecast, leaving the EU (hopefully something will stop it at the eleventh hour) will be a total disaster for our wildlife. (and, by the way, for a lot of people)

    1. " of the hidden agendas"

      Not even that hidden. The neo-liberal wing of the Conservative Party ('wing' is misleading it probably is most of it) makes little secret of its desire to tear down the regulatory framework that has been built up during our membership of the EU.

      1. Michael Gove for example, announcing his support for leave said:

        "This growing EU bureaucracy holds us back in every area. EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres)."

        Somehow this ill-informed arsonist is regarded by some conservationists as the Great White Hope for the environment. Just how much of our trust should we have in Boris Johnson's former right-hand man?


  2. There is still a great deal of conjecture in what you say. We really do not know, and this is the sad fact. It could stay the same, or even get better, I believe it is unlikely to get worse. Lobby your local MP with your worries.

      1. Ged Morley reminds me that Voltaire's Candide should be in any Brexit reading list. "I believe it is unlikely to get worse" is Prof Pangloss. No attempt to engage or analyze any evidence available.

  3. I guess the crux of the question of whether joining the EU was historically good or bad for wildlife is the effect of the CAP. Birds and other wildlife that depend on farmland have probably declined more severely than most other groups, and given the large proportion of UK land area that is used for agriculture, I regard this as the dominant wildlife disaster of my lifetime. Of course, the CAP could have been implemented differently, but it still acted as at least the catalyst for a change in farming attitudes and practices which ushered in a tidal wave of losses, most of which are still ongoing. In my view, this has outweighed the good things that EU legislation has undoubtedly brought.
    As for the future, it is likely that Brexit will again be an important catalyst for change. None of us can yet predict the outcome with any confidence, but if it leads to a rise in the prominence and influence of right-wing, populist and generally anti-environmental politicians (as it has done over the last 3 years), then the result will be dire for the natural world.
    Neither the damage of the CAP not the likely harm of Brexit were or are inevitable. Strong, concerted action by right-minded people led and co-ordinated by the established wildlife NGOs could turn things round and make the inevitable changes a really positive opportunity. I have very little confidence that this will happen - my only hope in this otherwise bleak picture lies with the likes of Packham, Avery, Goulson, Moores and Monbiot.

    1. AlanTwo - I don't think your first sentence is right. The Birds and Habitats Directives have had massive influence in preventing losses of habitat to built development - the fact that they have protected things that are still there means that we may take them for granted. When they go, as they begin to do when we either crash out of the EU or end the transition phase then they are up for grabs and at the mercy of each of the four UK governments (I guess) then you will see what they have held back for decades.

      And it is also slightly too easy to blame the CAP for everything to do with farming. Many of the changes we have seen were not policy-driven they were technology-driven. The CAP did not prevent winter cereals coming in in the late 1970s but nor did it mandate them.

      CAP has been bad, but it isn't responsible for all bad things in agriculture. But there is a blance between the badness fairly attributable to CAp and the goodness properly attributable to the Nature Directives.

      1. We grew a lot of Cappelle Desprez before we joined the EEC. Then CAP came along at the same time as many other things. In no particular order: Cheap nitrogen, straw-shortening growth regulators, straw-shortening gene exploitation (spoils of VJ), short-strawed two-row winter barley, short low erucic low glucosinolate winter oilseed rape, more horsepower, huge work-rates, chemical control of nearly everything except take-all, and everything else I can't be arsed to list. CAP initially guaranteed floor prices so eliminating a lot of the risk, subsidised oilseeds production and biofuels, encouraged banks to lend more to enable farmers to invest and locked them into a high output treadmill. So here we are. How do you like your Blue-Eyed boy, Mr Death?

      2. Mark - I don't think my first sentence is wrong (although several of the others may have been a bit iffy).
        I think everyone here agrees that much EU legislation, notably the Birds and Habitats Directives, has been hugely beneficial. So the crux of the question is whether the damage done by the CAP is, or is not, severe enough to tip the scales in the direction of overall net harm or overall net benefit of the EU to our wildlife. If the CAP did little harm, as some here have argued, then the net effect of the EU has been beneficial. If the CAP has done serious damage, as I believe, then the net influence of the EU has been negative. Either way, the CAP is indeed the key to resolving the question you posed.
        By the way, I would never pretend that the CAP was to blame for everything to do with farming. I think its effect was as much on changing attitudes as directly affecting practices. Let's watch what happens in eastern European countries. Their joining the EU will not change the number or potency of herbicides available on the global market, or the horsepower of the tractors, but it may hugely influence the speed and extent of the penetration of these technological advances into local farming practice.
        And I voted remain, and still stand by that position.

  4. I'd like to interject, not because you are wrong, but because of the statement: “The UK, and since devolution its constituent countries, has done a very poor job in transferring EU policy into effective schemes that work for wildlife.” I am still busy writing up my website in support of A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife, and thought I could best start by placing petitions in Scotland, where I live, to ensure that the government here would have some input in favour of supporting the policies in the manifesto. I started with marine protected areas, over which I had not seen much activity for the past few years. I was surprised to find that the policy that the government has adopted, being discussed with industry, may well result in enforcement supported by fishing industry leaders, and only rejected by those pursuing the most damaging methods. I hope that the petition I have drafted can stay in that form. It is taking time, but little in politics is rapid. I spent an hour or so responding to a consultation on Forestry Strategy, as advocated by the RSPB, if I remember. I quickly realised that not enough attention had been put on biodiversity or wildlife friendly policy, but reducing the number of deer was very prominent, as any forester will state is important to him. Even there, I noticed that some committees and charities had noted the same thing, from my research. I moved on to another devolved matter, establishing an environment Act. I knew that the NGOs/charities had been forming Scottish Environment Link. I wrote my petition, whilst at the same time familiarising myself with what the government and charities had been doing. It was clear that the likely consultation, which may well be in the pipeline, has been informed by Link, and MSPs of most parties may well be supportive. I'll keep my petition, and it's aims for content of the Environment Act, ready for input into the consultation. The Scottish government should not be held in the same disdain in my view as the UK and other devolved governments. It may take longer that we might wish, but I'll have to revert to formulating UK petitions.
    If anyone wishes to review, comment or assist by becoming a supporter (only 5 are needed for a petition) I'll try to get these under way shortly. Lots more are needed.

  5. Another aspect of our leaving the EU is that we will no longer have any say in the CAP. I think that should matter to anyone concerned about the fortunes of birds and other wildlife. First, many of the birds that spend part of their lives here in the UK also spend a significant part of their lives within the EU - whether that is sub-Saharan migrants passing through or intra-European migrants that breed there and winter here (or vice versa). If agricultural practices in Europe affect these birds we will see the consequences in the status of bird populations here.

    Secondly, I for one care about the fortunes of species that never come to Britain. It troubles me if EU agricultural policy causes declines in butterflies in Bulgaria or birds in Belgium as much as I am troubled by similar declines here in the UK and I am sure others feel the same way. We know that worrying declines in birds and invertebrates have been reported in other EU countries and it is likely that agricultural practices have at least in part contributed to these declines. We have to hope that EU policy makers will be far-sighted and brave enough to make changes to address these problems but as things stand we have forfeited our right to play any direct role in this process.

  6. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Habitats Directive was introduced by the EU in order to meet its obligations as a signatory of the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. The UK is a signatory of the Convention in its own right and so upholding the legal obligations associated with this will hopefully stay the hand of those itching to trash the legislation - or at least moderate their actions.

  7. Lets kill the first canard (as Oliver Rackham used to call them) stone dead - CAP was the simple continuation of the UK's 1947 agriculture policy and there is no evidence whatsoever we'd have done any different had we not joined the EU - it could even have been worse.

    The EU has simply been fantastic - just name the Chancellor who would have given us EU LIFE - and associated programmes, especially those, which, horror of horrors served also to bring the nations of Europe closer to each other.

    The other really crucial thing was that infringement of any EU directive reflected on the overall standing of the country within the EU - as we know Ministers never let SSIs get in their way if they felt it mattered, but censure over the bird of Habitat directives could result in problems over things they actually cared about - which meant those directives have always had far more power than any other UK legislation and certainly far more than the hugely powerful watchdog (teeth removed at birth) we are now promised.

    1. I'm afraid reports of the death of the canard have been greatly exaggerated. In the UK, rates of increase in wheat and barley yields and in the switch from spring to autumn sowing of cereals did not progress steadily from 1947 to, say, 1990. On the contrary, all these measures showed an abrupt discontinuity starting in about 1976, with yields switching to a trajectory of rapid increase. Similarly, the Farmland Bird Index was actually showing a gentle increase between 1970 and 1977, but then flipped into an abrupt and precipitous decline from which it has never recovered.
      I accept that the broad philosophy of farm intensification can be traced back to well before we joined the EU, but the CAP gave a sudden and powerful impetus to the implementation of that philosophy, with rapidly disastrous results for farmland wildlife.
      I do not underestimate the steady pressure of technological advance in agriculture. However, without the increase in cash and (above all) in confidence brought by the CAP, the uptake of technology would have been more gradual, and we might have been less inclined to rush headlong, with almost no thought for the possible consequences, into the changes that characterised the mid and late 1970s in UK farming.

      1. Alantwo - that sudden switch coincided with the introduction of autumn-sown crops which was made possible by new herbicides. That was a technological leap forward and not the fault of the CAP. The CAP has been damaging, but it is not responsible for all the damage. Headage payments for sheep form a good example of an environmentally damaging policy for which CAP certainly deserves to be blamed.

  8. I was very interested in Filbert's comment - even though he got bored of listing the changes ! I think he is spot on - as is Mark. It would be really interesting to list in order the technological changes that have driven farming. The period Alan Two refers to was when I was doing my degree - before giving up farming in favour of forestry. I remember it as key for the change from traditional pasture to sown grasses - the ryegrass revolution. Also systemic fungicides, short straw cereals, as Filbert mentions, and Glyphosate which eliminated the need for fallows on heavy ground - and so on. I've never felt that 'blaming' gets us very far - understanding the levers that make things happen, on the other hand, is invaluable and rare (and complex as Filbert illustrates !). The track farmers have followed has been pretty rational, given the political/financial environment they've been working in and whilst lobbying for ever greater intensification is questionable not just for the environment but for farming itself, it simply isn't just up to them - there is equal responsibility on the part of politicians environmentalists , consumers, whoever who have largely accepted their rhetoric. Two things are certain: farming has been brilliant at delivery, and (behind a barrage of agonised complaint) farmers will actually deliver what we ask - and are prepared to pay for - of them, whether it is flood protection, biodiversity or even public and nature.

  9. Growers of Squareheads, Hybrid 46, N59, Thatcher would be surprised to know they weren't growing winter wheat in the 1950s. By the early 70s Cappelle Desprez and Champlein were very popular because of their all-round but not complete disease resistance to eyespot and take-all. Proctor and Julia, then Golden Promise - a gamma-ray mutant from Maythorpe - were dominant spring barley varieties. Then there was the Great Grain Robbery of 1975 when the Rooskies bought up all the grain surpluses overnight and the bedwetters thought we would starve. But we didn't. The WW/SB pattern left a large area of winter stubbles. Then the EEC decided it wanted edible oil security, and WOSR took off, slowly at first because of the need to breed-out erucic acid and glucosinolate. A German spring barley, Trumpf, made a step change in yield for a few years before - IMHO - the biggest single change happened. Igri. Seedsmen did not like winter 6-row barley because the varieties were tall and stood out immediately if admixed, and the growth regulators didn't work very well on barley. Then Ackermann released Igri, a 2-row short strawed winter variety that could take N and stand up that popularised WB and very quickly supplanted SB. So WW/WW/WB/WOSR continuous winter cropping happened by happenstance, it could take a lot of N, big surpluses of grain resulted, IPU herbicides became popular, neonics happened, as did glyphosate. The food scares of the mid-80s, which have killed us all by now, led to Mrs Curry sealing grain stores against birds and their Salmonella, and the denial of their access to a major winter food source. Combines have got much better at putting grain in the bin and not blowing it out with the chaff, to be eaten over winter in the stubble fields that aren't there any more. Little by little by little, marginal gains, and here we are, like I said.

  10. It seems to me that the effectiveness of the birds and habitats directives depend on the willingness of national governments to enforce them. For example it appears that the government is not prepared not ensure that Walshaw moor is protected despite it being designated at European level, similarly there seems little point in Bowland being designated a SPA for hen harriers if the government does nothing to protect them. If the common agricultural policy has been bad for wildlife partly because of the fault of member states not the EU, then the majority of evidence seems to suggest that it is the attitude of national governments, not EU policy, that has by far the greatest impact (positive or negative) on wildlife. Therefore Brexit in itself will have little effect on the environment, what matters is what the government does post Brexit. They could make things a lot better (highly unlikely with the current government) or they could make things a lot worse. Similarly if we stayed in the EU things could stay pretty bad or the government could make them a lot better. I think it is wrong to judge the EU against the current government (which may implode in the next couple of months), but to consider the government we could have in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

  11. I’ve made my views known previously about how the polarisation of views on both sides of this debate become increasingly irrelevant as the majority becomes marginalised so I wouldn’t comment further on that. Exempt to say that I have met many NFU council members as a fellow farmer and I can imagine that they could be quite irritating given a chance.

    There is a subliminal change in UK farming methods I would suggest. The willingness of at least arable producers to search for new methods which provide a duel win for their business and the wider environment is growing. I would suggest the increased interest in soils, cover crops and wider more balanced crop rotations evidences this. Interestingly this is farmer led rather than as normal supply chain led which suggests that farmers would be looking for partners on this. Certainly we have worked with the RSPB their Defra work on cover crop effects for the past few years for instance.

    Despite these rays of hope I see far too often the old entrenched positions trotted out again. We need new thinking and new friends.

    1. Julian - you do, so you probably need a new NFU.

      The friends that farming needs have always been around - it's just that agriculture has thought it could get away with taking the public and the environment for granted.

  12. Mark your default position again. Is this sort of response helpful ? You’ve been here and seen what we are trying to do but I don’t think you got it at all. I’m more than aware that I probably stand for everything you don’t like in terms of society but that hardly helps the situation does it ?

    1. Julian - it's not my default position - it's my position.

      You don't stand for anything that bothers me much - I am commenting on how agriculture, particularly the NFU (and its elected spokespeople), are totally untrustworthy environmental allies and have been for decades. The fact that I have been hearing views like yours about how there is a seachange in agriculture for decades and the view of the ocean still looks the same to me.

  13. My pleasure, hopefully you have enjoyed my comments on your blog but you seem to be the only person who responds or engages with alterative views on the forum these days. Overall it just seems to have become a one party state and I think is poorer as a result. Maybe time for me to just leave you in peace I think.


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