Suffolk conservationists join ‘Battle of Brussels’ over fears our top wildlife sites could be hit by changes to EU legislation

RSPB Minsmere

RSPB Minsmere - Credit: Mike Page

Conservationists across Europe have united in a fight to prevent EU wildlife and landscape protection laws being watered down.

The Brecks

The Brecks

The habitats and birds directives cover some of East Anglia’s best-loved areas and species. John Grant reports on the campaign so far.

When one of Britain’s leading nature conservationists describes an issue as “possibly the single greatest threat to British wildlife of our generation” it might be advisable to sit up and take notice.

When 100 voluntary environmental organisations across Europe join forces in a fight to stave off that threat – which affects all 28 European Union member states – the severity of the matter becomes even clearer.

And when, over the course of just a few days, more than 215,000 people put their names on a petition against the threat, the seriousness of what is at stake becomes blindingly obvious.

A cormorant perches on one of the sails on Herringfleet windmill on the Norfolk Broads

A cormorant perches on one of the sails on Herringfleet windmill on the Norfolk Broads - Credit: �Archant Photographic 2009

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Campaigners say that what is at risk is the strength of EU legislation that has underpinned nature conservation for 30 years and which has been the cornerstone of the protection of some of Europe’s most important, most cherished, landscapes and wildlife habitats – including huge swathes of East Anglia.

The outcry has erupted over a European Commission “fitness check” of the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, with conservationists fearing that the outcome may be a watering down of legislation they see as crucial to wildlife and landscape protection.

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The campaign being fought to retain the legislation’s effectiveness – seen by some as a “Battle of Brussels” – is led by the 100 organisations that have formed the Joint Links group, a pan-European coalition that includes the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the RSPB, WWF and The Wildlife Trusts. Collectively, the group represents organisations that have a total of eight million supporters across the UK.

The group fears that the directives are at serious risk of being weakened by people who mistakenly regard them as a block on growth. Its members argue that a wide range of sectors, from renewable energy to water utilities and the construction industry, benefit from the certainty the directives give them.

Hamford Water Marshes in Essex

Hamford Water Marshes in Essex - Credit: Archant

Any revision of the legislation would cause long-term uncertainty and put nature at risk from short-term political priorities, they say.

James Robinson, the RSPB’s director in the East of England, put it more succinctly.

“This challenge to the laws that protect nature in the UK and Europe represents possibly the single greatest threat to British wildlife of our generation, maybe even in the history of the RSPB,” he said.

“For more than 30 years, the nature directives have been the bedrock for conservation in this country, protecting our most precious natural places and wildlife. They have been instrumental in the remarkable recovery of the bittern and the marsh harrier – once two of the rarest birds in the UK – and in saving the Thames Estuary – one of the most important sites for birds in Europe – from plans for a new airport.

“The benefit of the nature directives is not only felt by wildlife, but by the people around the UK who live alongside it as well. Here in East Anglia they have helped to foster the growth of one of the largest wildlife tourism economies in the country by preserving the region’s natural richness in wildlife, at such internationally important sites as Minsmere and the Suffolk coast and heaths, the Brecks, the Broads and the Fens.

“I cannot overstate the importance of the role these laws, which most of us won’t even have heard of, in keeping the wildlife around us safe. To make sure they are able to continue doing the job they have done so successfully in the future, we now need to step up to protect them.”

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director added: “If you enjoy the dawn chorus, full of song thrushes and yellowhammers, or the once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of otters or bottle-nosed dolphins, or birds of prey circling overhead as you cycle through the countryside, it’s important to remember that if it weren’t for the nature directives, you might not be enjoying these wonderful sights and sounds.

“At the moment, the laws to make sure these wonderful places are protected and remain special for wildlife. But if they get weakened these safeguards would be lost with potentially catastrophic consequences for our already threatened wildlife. Your time spent in the great outdoors could look, feel and sound very different.”

The European Commission’s review is the latest threat in Britain to the directives, after a review of the Habitats Directive in the UK ordered in 2011 by the Chancellor George Osborne to ensure they were not putting “ridiculous costs” on British business. In its 2012 report on the UK review the Environment Department found that in a large majority of cases implementation of the rules was working well to allow development of key infrastructure while protecting nature.

Joint Links group chairman Kate Jennings, of the RSPB, said: “The Habitats and Birds Directives are the foundation of nature conservation across Europe and are scientifically proven to be effective where properly implemented.

“The directives deliver demonstrable benefits for nature, as well as significant social and economic benefits.

“For over 30 years they have protected some of our best-loved and most iconic landscapes, from the Scottish Flow Country to the sand dunes and marshes of the north Norfolk coast.

“They are essential to the protection of species large and small from the basking shark and the harbour porpoise to the Dartford warbler and the hazel dormouse.”

And she warned: “Uncertainty over the future of the directives resulting from the ‘fitness check’ review could be bad for nature, bad for people and bad for business”.

European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella, of Malta, has tried to defend the current directives “fitness check”, but campaigners remain unconvinced by his assurances.

He said: “The Birds and Habitats Directives form a cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation policy. I am therefore committed to ensuring that there is no scaling back on its objectives.

“The objectives of the nature legislation to conserve the EU’s wildlife and habitats are not being called into question with this ‘fitness check’. The ‘fitness check’ of the Birds and Habitats is part of a broader programme of taking stock of EU legislation to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

“The focus is on ensuring that an effective legislative framework is in place – legislation that can produce real results on the ground.

“It is crucial that any evaluation of the legislation is transparent and open. The best way we can get Europeans engaged in protecting nature is to show that we are open to their suggestions.”

As part of its campaign to retain the directives’ full effectiveness, the Joint Links group has launched a “Nature Alert” electronic petition, enabling members of the public across all 28 EU member state countries to have their say. It has been translated into 20 languages and can be found hereSpecial sites with special species, and a special place in our hearts

Some of the most cherished landscapes in Suffolk and north Essex, and some of the counties’ most prized wildlife areas, benefit from the strong layers of protection afforded by the European Union’s Birds and Habitats Directives.

Under the Birds Directive, Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in the two counties include the Greater Thames Estuary, east Suffolk’s Sandling heaths, the Stour and Orwell estuaries, Minsmere and Walberswick, the Alde-Ore Estuary, the Brecks and Hamford Water.

Under the Habitats Directive, Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in the two counties include Staverton Park and the Thicks at Wantisden, near Woodbridge, the Brecks, Minsmere-Walberswick heaths and marshes and the southern part of the Broads.

Known as Natura 2000 sites, the SPAs and SACs afford the highest level of protection to some of Europe’s rarest species.

Organisations that manage Natura 2000 sites are also able to access particular funding, which has helped secure the future of some of East Anglia’s region’s most vulnerable wildlife.

The RSPB – one of 100 environmental organisations across Europe fighting to retain the directives’ full powers – said: “The directives are in place primarily to protect designated habitats and species from threats – both natural and man-made (ie, development).

“As a last resort, they are also in place to mitigate for any damage to designated habitats and species caused by natural and man-made threats.

“Without the directives there would have been some fundamental changes to our much-loved landscapes, reserves and species. The eastern region landscape would not look the same. Without the directives, we will not have the power to protect them and the species within them in the future. “

Several “priority” species of bird were “disproportionately well represented” in eastern England, the society said.

They included black-tailed godwit, little tern, marsh harrier, turtle dove, stone-culrew and bittern.

Key wildlife habitats were also “disproportionately well represented” – with much of eastern England’s heathland, arable farmland grazing marsh, reedbed and mudflats having SPA or SAC protection.

The society said studies had shown that the benefits from the directives substantially outweighed the costs. “As well as protecting wildlife, Natura 2000 sites provide a range of other benefits,” it said.

“By ensuring the same clear rules apply to all businesses, and by attracting visitors and tourists, the directives have added significant value to the economy.

“In fact, the value of the economic benefits provided by the Natura 2000 network has been estimated to be in the order of £200billion to £300bn per year,” the society added.

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