This blog is by RSPB Scotland’s Keith Morton and was first posted on the RSPB website.
40 years since the introduction of the first piece of EU legislation for the protection of our environment, the Birds Directive, RSPB and 34 other Scottish environmental charities are urging Scottish Government to make sure existing protections are retained and enhanced, no matter what happens with Brexit. RSPB Scotland’s Keith Morton discusses how we can ensure birds and the environment continue to be protected in Scotland.
Asking what the EU has ever done for the environment in Scotland – and indeed the rest of the UK – is like the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where they question: “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
The answer, of course, is similarly long and impressive. Two especially important pieces of EU law that have afforded many years of critical protection for our wildlife are the Birds and the Habitats Directives, more commonly known as the ‘Nature Directives’. But – if the UK is to leave the EU – we stand to lose these hugely important protections. That’s why we need a Scottish Environment Act and are campaigning for this through Fight for Scotland’s Nature.
The success of the Nature Directives is due not only to the strong legal protections that they create but also the wider framework that the EU provides for the directives to be properly and effectively implemented. the role of the European Commission has been particularly important in ensuring that national governments take their responsibilities seriously, while the prospect of a legal challenge through the European Court of Justice has acted as an effective deterrent ensuring good implementation of the laws.
What is more, the EU’s LIFE fund provides support to organisations working on the ground to ensure our most vulnerable species and habitats are protected. Since its inception, it has funded more than 25 projects in Scotland, bringing in well over £25 million for conservation delivery.
So following the EU referendum vote, reassurances by Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, have been very welcome. The Cabinet Secretary has stated on several occasions that there will be no roll-back of environmental protections1 and that Scotland will continue to follow the principles of EU environmental law2. More recently, she stated that the Government would seek to maintain or enhance environmental standards.
In wildlife terms that means retaining the legal protections afforded by the Nature Directives, but also continuing to pursue legislation that is in line with established EU environmental principles, ensuring we can enforce provisions and challenge authorities when laws are not implemented, as well as ring-fencing dedicated funding to realise important projects. It is these key aspects that a Scottish Environment Act will help address.
Even through the Birds Directive turns 40 today (2 April 2019), the reality is that its provisions are more relevant than ever before. Research has shown time and time again that is has delivered significant benefits for wildlife even in the face of unprecedented climate changes3.
Despite this, the Birds Directive has faced challenge over its near 40-year existence. Not everyone considers the protection of nature to be a high priority. From 2013, both the Birds and Habitats Directives were subject to an ‘EU Fitness Check’ which involved checking that the laws remained fit for purpose. But there was wide suspicion amongst European conservationists that this exercise in reasonable regulation was a smoke-screen for environmentally damaging deregulation.
Whatever the truth of that, there was an unprecedented reaction from ordinary citizens right across the EU in defence of the Directives, as a result of a campaign coordinated by a range of environmental bodies, including the RSPB. The UK was prominent in this with over a hundred thousand individuals pledging their support for a robust EU-wide system of nature conservation. At the time, the Scottish Government also stated its support for the Directives and that it did “not wish to seek the renegotiation of the directives”4.
In the face of wide-spread public support and clear evidence that the Directives were delivering for Europe’s nature, in December 2016, the European Commission gave the Birds and Habitats Directives a clean bill of health, declaring both were “fit for purpose”5.
So, across the EU, countries continued to operate under the provisions of the Birds Directive which over the years had been firmly embedded in their own territories. In Britain, the legal basis for conserving wild birds in England, Scotland and Wales is the Wildlife and Countryside Act6. This Act has been amended many times and now exists in slightly different versions across the three countries, as devolved parliaments updated it as they saw fit. But all versions still follow the fundamental principle of providing a pan-European system of bird conservation – highly appropriate since birds, and in fact all wildlife, are not known for their respect of state boundaries.
There is a clear irony that, Brexit threatens to undermine the very same thing that so many UK citizens so strongly felt needed defending. This was a clear statement from the UK public – regardless of which side of the Brexit divide they sat – that effective nature conservation is very much what they want to see. This is what RSPB Scotland is seeking to ensure by calling for a Scottish Environment Act.
We hope to see the Birds Directive continue to protect species across all of Europe. Having an Environment Act in Scotland will ensure that our natural environment and wildlife are protected, no matter what happens with Brexit.
If you want some further detail about the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and how they work to safeguard ours and the rest of Europe’s wildlife, you can find it here.
Take action and tell the Scottish Government we need a Scottish Environment Act here.
6 N. Ireland has its own Wildlife Order