One month after the end of the Brexit transition period, we are starting to understand the implications of leaving the EU on all aspects of our life. Since EU legislation underpinned much nature conservation law in the UK, this is one area that could change dramatically. To assess possible changes we need to grasp the implications not only for explicitly ‘environmental’ rules, but also for broader policies – such as those on farming and fishing – as well as for the ‘enforcement’ of rules and policies.
Let’s start by looking at a couple of key ‘directives’. The Birds Directives provides a legal framework for the protection of wild birds across the EU and has increased bird populations, whilst the Habitats Directive provides equivalent protection for other species of animals and plants. Although the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 transposes this into domestic law, it is not now supported by European enforcement and may therefore be less rigorous.
Although the UK remains a signatory to the Bern Convention which also offers protection for listed plants and animals and supports a network of protected sites, this is weaker than the European Directives. Whilst many conservationists are therefore concerned about the impact that Brexit will have upon the legislative underpinning of nature conservation, this impact will depend upon decisions made by the government and the regulatory authorities that will be put in place. At present there is a governance gap until these authorities are established – in England and Northern Ireland this depends upon the Environment Act working through the Westminster Parliament.
Implications for the environment look even more profound when we consider the changes coming down the line in farming and fishing.The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) have regulated farming and fishing across the EU for decades. The collapse in farmland biodiversity associated with agricultural intensification under the CAP, that has occurred in the UK and across Europe, has still not been reversed (see here). This shows that the CAP has not delivered for nature conservation. In England, it has been replaced by the Agriculture Act which, after the current four year transition, will establish the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) that should provide support for more sustainable and biodiversity-friendly farming.
However, whether this will help to reverse the decline in farmland biodiversity will depend upon the funding and scale of uptake of conservation-focussed measures. Similar concerns existed about the effectiveness of the CFP to sustainably manage fish stocks. This has now been replaced by The Fisheries Act. Given that many of our fish stocks are migratory, and also affected by large-scale processes like climate change, time will tell whether the UK ‘taking back control’ leads to more sustainable management.
Lastly, we must look at water – critical for everyone of us, used daily by homes, industry and, of course, wildlife! The Water Framework Directive provided a framework for ‘catchment-level’ management of water resources, catchment being the area of land from which water drains into a particular waterbody. There is good evidence that the quality of our freshwaters has improved in recent decades with pollution-sensitive taxa expanding into previously polluted areas. The 25-year Environment Plan for England contains the target that 75% of freshwaters should be ‘close to their natural state’, although it is not clear how this relates to the current target of ‘good status.’
Brexit introduces significant uncertainty into the environmental policy landscape. Previously effective nature conservation European Directives may be watered down or have fewer teeth to support regulation. Alternatively, the UK government and devolved administrations may adapt Europe-wide policies to our particular situation, improving their effectiveness. What happens will depend upon our ambition as a country. Given this uncertainty, we should follow Pauls’ encouragement to pray for our leaders (1 Tim 2) whilst also writing to them to express the importance of getting this transition right.
James Pearce-Higgins is Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology and Trustee of A Rocha UK. With thanks to Colin Beale and Simon Marsh for guidance in writing this article.