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.