What Will Brexit Mean For UK's Conservation & Nature Protection Regulations?

There is much concern about what leaving the EU (Brexit) will mean for pesticide and conservation regulations.  Will the UK have weaker pesticide regulations once we leave?

Many are afraid about what will happen.  At this moment in time, we do not know for certain what will happen, but I do agree with Prof Dave Goulson:

"Like Brexit or not, it provides a golden opportunity, freeing British farming from the Common Agricultural Policy, and making it possible to steer it away from industrial, chemical farming towards more sustainable methods. If we do not, we will lose bees and much else of our wildlife for ever. "  

- Professor Dave Goulson, author of A Buzz In the Meadow and Bumblebee Behaviour and Ecology

It's a practical statement of both hope and warning!  

Do most of our environmental protections come from the EU? 

In actual fact, EU environmental legislation stems from the Bern Convention, which is an initiative which is separate from the EU, and which the EU signed up to.  The UK is individually signed up to the Bern Convention, as are other European countries who are not EU members, (and some African countries).  The UK was one of the earliest countries to sign up, having signed the same year the convention was open to signatures in 1979.

The convention has three main aims, which are stated in Article 1:

  • to conserve wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats
  • to promote cooperation between states
  • to give particular attention to endangered and vulnerable species including endangered and vulnerable migratory species

As a signatory, the European Union meets its obligations under the Convention by means of the Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds (the Birds Directive) (the codified version of Council Directive 79/409/EEC as amended) and the Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (the Habitats Directive).

Will we lose the conservation  protections we currently have?

I think this is where we need to lobby, to keep and improve upon the laws already in place.  For example, EU pesticide regulations allowed the approval of neonicotinoids int he first place - and 3 next-generation systemic insecticides have been approved despite the EFSA investigation and report of 2012. 

Neonicotinoids have now been banned, but regulation needs to be much improved.

Conservation groups and members of the public can and should aim to ensure a ban is in place, and should surely set out what is wanted in terms of improvements to pesticide regulations.

Efforts should be made to ensure the next generation neonicotinoids are not allowed onto the market.

British people care about wildlife and conservation

The UK has some of the oldest, largest (i.e. with large membership base) and internationally active conservation organisations (especially relevant, for example, considering migratory species).

81% of those who voted to leave the EU want to keep the EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides that have been found to pose a threat to bees - according to a You Gov opinion poll for Friends of the Earth. 

British people care about wildlife and the environment, and pressure can be put upon politicians for better protection.

But has EU membership resulted in better protection for UK wildlife?

Not necessarily!

  • Over the last 40 years, indicators used in the report show a decline in farmland birds of 56%, with turtle doves declining the most rapidly - down 96% since 1970.
  • Other species under pressure include skylarks - down 62% since 1970 - and lapwings which are down by 50%.
  • Much of this decline is blamed on the rapid change in farmland management in the late 1970s and early 1990s.

Source:  BBC

Further, a study by Birdlife International concludes:

"An assessment in 1994 estimated that 25% of all European bird species were undergoing substantial population declines (Tucker and Heath 1994)……...

One such indicator has been produced by combining data for 37 abundant and widespread bird species breeding in, and characteristic of, farmland. The results show that the European farmland bird index declined by 52% covering the period 1980–2010, representing a loss of 300 million birds, with decline rates greatest in the late 1970s and early 1980s (PECBMS 2012).

A comparison of new and old EU Member States shows that although farmland birds were performing better in new EU countries, their trends appear to be worsening in recent years, now mimicking the trends in old EU countries. It is widely accepted that these declines have been driven by agricultural intensification and the resulting deterioration of farmland habitats, and it is likely that the trends observed are mirrored by other farmland taxa."

Find the study here.

With regard to the data above, I suspect EU farming policy is not helping!

  • The EU has operated a lax and scandalous pesticide regulatory system, which allowed neonicotinoids to be licensed and sold without proper testing.  It has famously been under the heavy lobbying influence of the agrochemicals industry.

  • Thanks to a disastrous fishing policy, fish stocks are at a worrying low.  This receives surprisingly little mainstream media attention.  A once small-scale, sustainable local British fishing industry has been decimated, whilst industrial trawlers from other EU member states hoover up the ocean beds. 

It should be remembered that many of the beneficial EU conservation laws which have arisen, have been driven by action and lobbying by ordinary members of the public and conservation organisations. 

The EU review of neonicotinoids was a case in point, and required substantial effort and information sharing between individuals across several countries.  However, there is no reason why information sharing cannot continue across countries - indeed, there are many charities which do this, and social media has connected ordinary people from across the planet.

Some good has come out of the EU

  • Primarily the Water Framework Directive 2000 springs to mind, albeit member states are erratic in monitoring (the UK is comparatively good!).  It seeks to counter issues such as water pollution, which could improve life and abundance of water dwelling invertebrates, bird life, fish and flora. 

    The key concern here is: will the UK government relax standards? 

  • However, the UK has some of the largest, well established wildlife and environmental charities in the world.  The bees campaign was initiated by ordinary people (myself and a few beekeepers) - and look how far it got (most charities came on board from 2012 when the difficult work had been done and the EU was about to release the report following investigation - the UK had already held an Environmental Committee audit to look at neonicotinoids).  

    With their expertise, members and resources, they should be able to drive positive change, rather than merely react to events around them - indeed, if they are not doing this, what are they doing?

What next?

As I write, it's 29th June 2017. 

We don’t yet know what will happen! 

There is an opportunity to try and influence UK politicians for good.  If we sit on our hands and do nothing, then we can only blame ourselves if things do not go the way we want them to go.

We can make a difference

I think we really are at a cross roads.  We really can lobby to make it go one way or another.

For ideas of issues you can raise with your MP, please visit this page.


(1) https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/