Nature protection laws are under review, writes Aedán Smith
There is much talk across Europe of the UK government’s plans for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union and the implications of this for Europe, the UK and Scotland. However, there is another debate happening right across Europe now which, in many ways, is as important as the referendum. This debate is happening in response to a threat to one of the great postwar European success stories – the EU Nature Directives.
The Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive together form what are often called the Nature Directives. These laws prevent a race to the bottom between different parts of Europe. They establish the principle that no European Member State should gain competitive advantage over others by wrecking their environment for short-term economic gain. And, of course, as some species migrate across Europe, these laws also help reduce the risk that unsustainable activities in one country would prevent other countries from enjoying seasonal wildlife spectacles. For example, think how much poorer our summers would be if migratory songbirds couldn’t reach Scotland.
An integral part of the Nature Directives is the requirement for member states to establish a network of protected areas, Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, collectively known as Natura 2000 sites, to safeguard the most important places for wildlife. In Scotland, almost 300 Natura sites have been identified.
These range from small areas critically important to one or two unfamiliar species to large areas important to some of Scotland’s most iconic species and habitats, from our seas and coastline to our native forests, peatlands and mountain tops. For example, the Nature Directives directly protect many of our most loved and most endangered birds, including golden eagles, corncrakes, gannets and puffins. They also directly protect some of our most valued habitats, including our remaining native Caledonian forest and our peatlands. Much of our wildlife is still in trouble and implementation of the Directives remains incomplete, particularly at sea. However, scientific evidence has clearly shown that birds fare better where the Birds Directive gives them protection than they do outwith the network of Natura 2000 sites.
The protection given by the Nature Directives also helps governments make the right decisions. For example, when a multinational conglomerate proposed a huge wind farm for the Isle of Lewis a few years ago, which would have damaged a large part of the internationally important Lewis Peatlands Special Protection Area, there was huge pressure on Scottish ministers to approve the scheme despite the environmental damage it would have caused. The Nature Directives provided a legal framework which helped identify that wind energy could be generated from less damaging locations elsewhere in Scotland and enabled Scottish ministers to refuse consent.
These laws have been well written and are successful. A study from 2014 found that there were 421 million fewer birds in Europe than there were 30 years ago but there would be far fewer if the Nature Directives hadn’t played such a crucial role in stemming declines. It is no wonder then that the Directives are also popular amongst the public – no mean feat for European legislation.
But even without the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the Directives are under threat. A public consultation, part of a “Fitness Check” of the Nature Directives, is now being carried out by the European Commission. Along with over 100 other organisations, RSPB Scotland is involved in a major campaign to defend the Directives. We are encouraging as many people as possible to respond and show they care about nature, and about the laws which protect nature. The consultation closes on 24 July and can be responded to via the RSPB website at http://www.rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp/campaignwithus/defendnature/ Over 250,000 have already responded from across Europe but we need as many people as possible to show they care if we are to head off this threat to wildlife in Scotland and across Europe.
• Aedán Smith is head of planning and development for RSPB Scotland, www.rspb.org.uk/Scotland