What will Brexit mean for Nature?

I am not sure where to begin with this post, but it feels right to have a stab at it. There is little doubt that EU Directives have been some of the strongest protection for species and habitats over the past few decades, and it’s also no secret that the Conservative government has been keen to minimise ‘red tape’ for economic development, by putting in place a presumption in favour of development in the local planning system. We now have the NPPF the National Planning Policy Framework, which swept away reams of details planning guidance, policy statements and advice, in favour of more general broad brush ‘biodiversity duty’ which, to put it crudely, leaves it to the discretion of local authority planning departments. So this is my first worry for Nature…protected areas and species.

First, what happens to Natura 2000?  – that Europe-wide network of designated areas given statutory conservation protection for their valuable wildlife habitats? Without EU legislation to require it, will the UK government uphold the conservation designations which are enshrined in European law? Special Protection Areas for Birds (SPAs) are European designations, for instance the North York Moors is designated an SPA for the populations of Merlin and Golden Plover it supports. Fortunately the North York Mors is also a National Park, which gives another strong UK based level of environmental protection. Special Areas of Conservation (SAC’s) are another EU designation, for instance the River Derwent is an SAC for its riparian habitats with key aquatic mammals and fish. Will this stand once we have parted company with Europe?

A second issue of EU legislation: Will the Water Framework Directive be abandoned – that challenging goal for raising the ecological status of all our rivers, streams and water bodies – including reduction of aquatic pollution, sediment inputs from land, removing barriers to fish migration on rivers etc. It has steered and dominated major aspects of the Environment Agency and DEFRA’s work relating to rivers and their catchments. Indeed the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) which has been embedded in aspects of DEFRA work on land management was a logical extension of the need to improve water quality and water level management of our river systems.

Thirdly and this is a big one, there is the matter of European subsidies for rural development, agriculture, forestry etc, including the Natural England flagship agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship, on which the ink is barely dry from a major shake-up and re-organisation of farming subsidies for environmental benefits, including provision for pollinators, climate change mitigation, ecosystem services, carbon management, catchment sensitive farming methods, farmland biodiversity under Pillar II of the Common Agricultral Policy – the so called Greening of the CAP. It is up to the individual EU nation states to design their own schemes for prioritising and disseminating the subsidies for Agri-Environment work, and Countryside Stewardship – and its forbears including ELS/HLS -is our nations version. But the money ultimately comes from central European funds, and surely this is going to be a major headache for Natural England who are just bedding in the new CS scheme and working on only their second round of annual applications this summer.

Whati is without doubt is that there a major work to do both by government departments and by conservation organisations large and small to make sure that Nature does not get a raw deal out of  Brexit.   In one sense you could say that interest rates and currency flops can recover, but if natural habitats get ‘done over’ once in many cases it will be for good.

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