I spent a cathartic weekend at the fascinating Knepp Estate exploring its re-wilding project.  Following the referendum, time spent looking for turtle doves, purple emperor chrysalis’ and amphibious bistort was a great way to clear the head.

As politicians across the UK decide their next steps, the news has been dominated by when and what sort of Brexit deal will be struck and what it might mean for all of us.  At the RSPB, we have been thinking through what it might mean for nature.

We are not coming at this cold.  The IEEP report published in March outlined the implications for environmental law and for sectoral policies such as agriculture and fisheries.  What’s more, in the run up to the vote, various politicians from the ‘Leave’ campaign, including George Eustice MP, made statements about how they would rise to meet the environmental challenges if we left the EU.

But, talk during the campaign needs to be translated into action in government.  And, here uncertainty remains as it will be for the next Prime Minister to decide what future relationship the UK wants with Europe (although the First Minister in Scotland may also have views on this).  

Given that most of our environmental laws have over the past forty years evolved in parallel with the European Union and the dominant land and sea uses have been governed by common agriculture and fisheries policies, the final arrangements could have major implications on nature conservation across the UK.  Indeed, our own conclusion before the referendum was that, on balance, it was safer for nature for the UK to remain a member of the EU.

Now the UK has voted to leave the EU we will continue to seek action for nature both internationally and at home.  As my boss, Mike Clarke, wrote in his response to the referendum on Friday, we are a nation (or a set of four nations) that love nature.  The public will expect high standards of nature protection and indeed the Conservative Party won a general election with a manifesto commitment to restore UK biodiversity in 25 years.

So, working alongside our eclectic and active NGO community, our priorities in this period will be to:

  • Ensure existing levels of protection are maintained or ideally bolstered
  • Guard against intensification of land and sea use by adopting smart new agriculture and fisheries policies
  • Expect international leadership from the UK Government for action to halt biodiversity loss and tackle climate change

Below, I offer some early thoughts on what this means in practice.  

1. Ensuring existing levels of protection are maintained or ideally bolstered

View of RSPB Cliffe Marshes at dusk (David Broadbent, rspb-images.com)

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations that will follow the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU, existing international and national commitments to species and sites remain (through the Convention on Biological Diversity's Aichi targets and other agreements such as the Ramsar, Bonn and Bern Conventions). 

A coherent network of well managed protected areas on land and at sea, combined with targeted and effective conservation measures in the land/seascape and species protection legislation, is fundamental to our efforts to maintain or restore wildlife populations.  It is therefore vital that any emerging legal protection for our most special places for wildlife across the UK is consistent with international best practice, and at least equivalent to that currently provided by the EU Nature Directives (which have also successfully improved the populations of threatened species).  

Without the protection that the Nature Directives currently provide, we would lose the legal framework that guarantees no net loss of the most important places for wildlife, and the protection afforded to c80% of the UK's best sites for wildlife would be diminished.

This is why we will argue to retain the Habitat Regulations for England and Wales and their equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

2. Guard against intensification of land and sea use by adopting smart new policies for agriculture...


Harvest mouse on wheat (Ben Andrew, rspb-images.com)

The RSPB has spent many years campaigning to reform the Common Agriculture Policy.  Agriculture has been a major driver of wildlife declines and we have long argued that the CAP could do more to support wildlife-friendly farming.  So, we believe that our withdrawal from the EU should trigger a public debate about what farming can deliver for society. What is clear is that some public investment will continue to be needed if we are to secure a food and farming sector across the UK that is good for people, for wildlife and is fair to farmers.

This investment should reward the many vital public services that agriculture can provide (such as clean water and an attractive countryside rich in wildlife), and build on the great work many farmers are already doing through rural development programmes.  It should help shape more sustainable food and farming businesses by encouraging farming practices that benefit nature and help tackle climate change.

Clearly times are tough for some farmers. We need a new policy framework which works much harder to improve the return they receive from the market and increases transparency about where money goes in the supply chain. This will help ensure farmers are profitable whilst allowing them to deliver for nature in addition to food and other services. The RSPB will be looking to engage the public to support these changes and make nature/environmentally friendly choices in the way people eat and live.

So, what might a future policy look like in practice?  Without diving into too much detail, I think we should be looking for...

...a shift away from a focus on subsidies with few strings attached, towards a strategic policy framework that supports progressive, innovative farmers, providing them with the certainty to engage in more sustainable production

...public money being focused on the environmental challenges that farmers are uniquely placed to meet, such as the conservation of species, restoration of habitats and natural flood risk management. This should build on the progress already made through agri-environment schemes and rural development programmes across the UK

...a transition period toward new arrangements that allows time for farmers and land managers to adapt, and for new policies to be piloted. This is particularly important for the most economically vulnerable farmers, such as those in our extensive livestock sector, who are often farming in marginal, but high nature value areas

There needs to be a new sense of direction in food and farming policy focusing on combined solutions to different but connected problems. We need to make sure that it allows farmers the space to make a meaningful contribution toward restoring wildlife and improving the overall sustainability of the sector. With this in mind, in 2015 we, alongside our partners in Wildlife and Countryside Link in England, set out our vision for Farming Fit for the Future, and we will continue to work with others to widen the debate about agriculture policy, and make the case that this issue is of central importance to people’s lives, and their wellbeing. 

...and fisheries

The Common Fisheries Policy of 2013 didn’t give us everything we wanted but, with the UK acting as the leading advocate for change, it delivered a lot for the marine environment (including fish which people often forget are also part of biodiveristy). Reforms included...

...unprecedentedly strong compliance of fishing to environmental legislation (including an ecosystem approach to fisheries management)

...an ambitious target to fish all stocks at sustainable levels

...a Landing Obligation (the so-called ‘discard ban’) – formerly discarded fish must now be landed and be counted against quota

...'regionalisation' which essentially means devolving decision-making to the Member States around a given sea basin (e.g. North Sea) to get away from Brussels micro-management/command and control. 

The UK particularly championed reduction of seabird bycatch and is developing a UK Seabird Plan of Action. So our Brexit ask for fisheries is simple: we want Defra to commit to developing a national fishing policy with measures equivalent to these in the reformed CFP.

3. International leadership from the UK Government for action to halt biodiversity loss and tackle climate change

As Mike Clarke wrote on Friday, Brexit will not dent the RSPB ambtion to cooperate with our BirdLife International partners to address trans-national challenges such as protecting our migrating birds and tackling climate change. Equally, we shall expect the same from the UK Government.  As it has done for decades, we need the UK to continue to look beyond its own borders and use its voice for action on global priorities such as halting the loss of tropical forests.  

My closing thought is this - in this time of huge flux, opportunities as well as threats will emerge.  In the short term, things will continue until they are actively changed.  But we shall monitor political developments carefully and will be prepared to work tirelessly (and innovatively) with our supporters and partners to ensure our politicians secure a Brexit deal that works for nature.

  • Hi Bob

    Yep, I realise that the Habitats Regulations transpose EU nature legislation into domestic law. I guess I would say that we have a strong tradition of sympathy for nature conservation in the UK, so this legislation probably reflects the mood of the UK voting public - we're in favour of such protection. I wonder how many UK voters signed the RSPB petition urging Europe to maintain EU nature legislation during the early part of the Refit process? But we'll have to give a voice to this mood here in the UK, as the RSPB and BirdLife did at the European level. We need a vociferous constituency of support else the politicians will look to unpick hard-won safeguards. The failure of the government to do the right thing at Walshaw and to get a grip of intensifying upland grouse moor management suggests that they just don't get it, yet.

  • Steve,   The 'Habitats Regulations' unfortunately are not there to reflect the wishes of our electorate but quite specifically there to implement European directives.  They link back to those directives.   This is why we will have to fight for that and similar legislation to remain.  It will probably have to be redrafted accordingly but I fully agree with the RSPB position as outlined by Martin.

  • Excellent analysis Martin.

    Our best wildlife sites are recognised internationally for their contribution to global biodiversity protection: the UK can be proud of its role in getting protection for these sites in place. The European nature legislation very much reflects the wishes of the British people to see these species places safeguarded and managed well. Our own own domestic laws - the Habitats Regulations for example - reflect the wishes of our electorate. They're not to be unpicked just because similar European legislation no longer applies. To attempt to do away with such UK wildlife protection legislation would be to deny the fact that such legislation satisfies our wishes, here in the UK.

  • Martin, I cannot say how pleased I am with this superb policy position. It is just what RSPB should be doing: in a dangerous policy vacuum, RSPB should, and is, giving a clear vision of a positive future. You are as much leaders in all this as part politicians - with the exception that you are taking sides, but not for any political creed or colour, but for nature. Holding politicians to their promises is part of what needs to be done, but they have not faced a challenge on agriculture and landuse like this since 1947, and I actually agree with George Eustice that the fact the CAP made the rules has made us lazy in thinking about these things.

    You probably couldn't have spent your weekend in a better place than Knepp, a living proof that there are big ideas and opportunities beyond the straightjacket of agricultural production. You are also right to point out that, whilst we may point the finger at huge CAP payments, many farmers are struggling - do we really want to lose our dairy industry to a supermarket price war ? And we need to remember that farmer's global; markets are undermined by subsidies - the free market USA subsidises its farmers at least as generously as the EU.

    For me, future policy should be outcome, not rule, led - and the key outcome for RSPB must be halting and reversing the decline in Biodiversity. We need farming that is thriving but not destructive. Equally, we need land use based on all the values - yes, food very important, but no longer overriding, nature, water, green places for people close to where they for recreation and health, both physical and mental.

    And I agree (believe it or not !), Keith, that Loddington and Hope Farms together provide superb exemplars of what a future countryside can look and be like - a countryside where we no longer have to argue about Sparrowhawks because their small bird prey is increasing every year.    

  • Cooperation with others is a good idea as long as the RSPB avoids disastrous projects like the Hen Harrier Action Plan.