Anne McCall: Brexit could have a massive impact on cash to preserve our wildlife

Anne McCall, Director, RSPB Scotland.
Anne McCall, Director, RSPB Scotland.
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Perusing the media, you’d be forgiven for assuming that news on the global environment is uniformly, relentlessly negative. It seems that humanity is powerless to make positive ­changes. On the other hand, many in ­Scotland see our otters and bumblebees, eagles, wildflowers and seals, and assume that the ­environment here is managing just fine. These assumptions are understandable – but ­neither is right.

Climate change, habitat loss, marine pollution, invasive species and a host of other apocalyptic horsemen unquestionably proceed across the planet. They have severe impacts on the natural environment, and Scotland is ­not immune. More than half of our seabird populations, for example, have been in long-term decline for more than 30 years, with kittiwakes and ­Arctic terns down by more than 70 per cent. They face pressures from climate change, invasive species on breeding islands, pollution and damaging developments.

Our native Caledonian pinewoods are at just 1 per cent of their original area, fragmented into vulnerable islands. Yet there are extraordinary successes where people have protected and enhanced the wildlife that shares our planet and our country.

Among the least appreciated is the impact of EU wildlife legislation – the Nature Directives – and, in particular, the EU LIFE Nature fund. The nature directives require EU ­member states to protect wildlife, with special measures for those species in most trouble.

This means countries must create positively managed protected ­areas at the very best wildlife sites with legal boundaries determined by ­ecology, rather than vested interests. Governments are held to account if protected wildlife falls into unfavourable condition at those sites. This body of law was recently tested in a rigorous formal assessment of its ‘fitness for purpose’ across the EU.

The outcome was an eye-opener. Whilst the challenge of halting all biodiversity loss has not yet been achieved, the status and trends of species and habitats ­protected by the directives would be significantly worse in their absence, and improvements are taking place where there are targeted actions at a sufficient scale. Moreover, the analysis found that the multiple benefits of the directives, estimated at 200-300 billion euros per year, significantly exceed identified costs. The EU nature directives benefit not only wildlife – with all the associated ­cultural, social, educational and health benefits – but they make ­economic sense too.

The key point of the analysis, however, is that this happens only when the directives are properly and effectively implemented. This is where the LIFE Nature fund comes in.

It is available to any organisation working in the EU and it funds ­specific projects, each typically lasting 3-5 years, costing between 1-10 million euros. This ­combination of strong legislation, plus implementation support, has made these environmental laws among the most effective on earth. Scotland has ­benefited enormously: since the LIFE Nature fund’s inception, it has funded more than 25 projects, bringing in well over £25 million for conservation delivery – 21 per cent of the UK total. And this money, of course, freed additional funds from elsewhere.

Among the beneficiaries are ­Atlantic salmon; the freshwater pearl mussel; the corncrake; the Flow Country peatlands; Caledonian pinewoods; upland invertebrates; the red squirrel; machair grasslands; ­seabirds on Canna and the Shiants; the Celtic rainforest; the porpoise; and the hen harrier.

Now, however, our wildlife faces a twin crisis. With Brexit, regardless of wider pros and cons, we face the ­possibility of weakening wildlife legislation, and loss of funding. This comes at a time when the funding for nature conservation in general is massively challenged in Scotland.

Scottish Natural Heritage ­budgets have been cut; the Heritage ­Lottery Fund is over-subscribed, and its income is shrinking. Moreover, a recent report found that private foundation funding for environmental causes in England and Wales was 20 times as much as that in Scotland.

Cabinet ­Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has made ­genuinely ­progressive statements that, post-Brexit, Scotland would retain environmental legislation at least as strong as that in place now. This is a welcome, indeed essential, commitment.

But, without explicit commitment to dedicated funding support for the conservation of Scottish ­wildlife and ecosystems, we risk effective implementation, and all the benefits that brings, ­becoming little more than a memory.

Anne McCall, director, RSPB Scotland.