We must defend Europe's wildlife laws!

Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) at RSPB Medmerry, West Sussex England. Photo: BiteYourBum.Com Photography via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) at RSPB Medmerry, West Sussex England. Photo: BiteYourBum.Com Photography via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
Europe's most important laws for wildlife, the EU's Nature Directives, are under threat in from a recently launched 'review', writes Martin Harper. The official purpose is to make the laws more effective, but in reality it's all part of the Commission's agenda to strip away regulations that impede business in its pursuit of profit.
European leaders must be left in no doubt that the citizens of the UK and Europe care passionately about nature and won't tolerate a weakening of its protection.

On Saturday afternoon, I stood on a shingle beach with waves crashing against the shore. I always feel invigorated by the power of the sea and this was a great way to clear the head following the surprising election result 24 hours earlier.

Behind me were some 200 hectares of new wetland habitats which now provide homes to birds such as little tern, grey plover, avocet and even a spoonbill.

I was visiting Medmerry - the largest known open coast managed realignment project. It's a wildlife site in West Sussex that I last visited in 2012 before the sea wall was breached and sea had been let in.

Today, it's a spectacular example of what can be achieved with determination, expertise and a little help from the power of the sea. Prior to the breach, the Environment Agency constructed four miles of new floodbank inland from the sea between Selsey and Bracklesham on one of the largest undeveloped stretches of coast anywhere between Southampton and Brighton.

It's primarily a flood risk management project protecting 300 homes from coastal flooding. But it is also providing 'compensatory habitat' for that which is lost through coastal squeeze and sea level rise.

And it's all thanks to the Nature Directives

The Environment Agency is obliged to recreate 100 hectares a year under the terms of the EU Nature Directives (the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives) and the Medmerry scheme is a major contribution to this target.

At Medmerry, things are going so well that we celebrated the successful breeding of black-winged stilts last year. Yet, the site will evolve over time as the sea shapes its future. Trees and scrub will eventually die unable to cope with the salt water but the birds will come in big numbers as it becomes an important home for nature on the densely populated south coast.

If you ever visit yourself, go and see the little terns protected by the Birds Directive at nearby Pagham Harbour and pop in to the wonderful Natura 2000 site Pulborough Brooks to hear nightingales, see snakes and enjoy the woodland flowers.

These are sites protected and created, and species under recovery, thanks to the Nature Directives - those European laws that are so vulnerable today.

Last September I reported on the decision by the new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to consider a 'merger' of the two Nature Directives.  Given the anti-regulatory context within which this announcement was made, our concern was that 'merger' was simply code for 'weaken'.

European leaders must be left in no doubt that the citizens of the UK and Europe care passionately about nature and won't tolerate a weakening of its protection.

And now the battle to defend the laws that protect our nature is under way following the launch of a public consultation on the Directives.

Our wildlife depends on our response!

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of the Nature Directives to conservation. For example, the overall population trend for birds that are specially protected by the Birds Directive has gone from declining to increasing.

Species such as red kite and bittern have increased dramatically off the back of the protection they're afforded by the Directives, while species such as the fen orchid would be at serious risk of extinction without them.

There are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than there were 30 years ago, and there would be far fewer if the Directives hadn't played such a crucial role in stemming declines.

They must also have influenced the government's decision to welcome free-living beavers back to Devon earlier this year - perhjaps decisively as beavers are listed for the highest level of protection.

The Directives help the economy to prosper, too, with the network of areas they protect creating €200-300bn worth of economic benefits per year. Cemex - a global quarrying company with over 40,000 staff and an annual turnover of $15b - emphatically supported the Directives in a recent statement.

Moreover, the Directives allow people and nature to live together in and around some of our most iconic protected areas. Whether it's enabling affordable housing to be built without affecting capercaillies in the Cairngorms, or water to be extracted from Rutland without affecting ospreys - the Directives work for people, nature and the economy.

It short, they are good for wildlife, good for people and good for business.

Challenging the Commision's 'anti-regulation' agenda

Despite this, the political context is hostile to regulation. Some European leaders would like to weaken the European Nature Directives because they mistakenly think weaker protection for wildlife is good for business. This would be bad for business, and a disaster for wildlife.

We need people to join our 'Defend Nature' campaign, and show their support for the Directives during the current public consultation on the future of the Directives.

There is currently a public consultation that is part of a 'Fitness Check' (a test of whether a regulation is fit for purpose) of the Nature Directives, launched by the European Commission last year.

The Fitness Check involves collating evidence from a range of sources across Europe, but the public consultation launching today will be the only formal opportunity for the citizens of Europe, including you, to have their say in this process.

Whilst the Fitness Check itself will be looking at the evidence, the decision the European Commission makes as a result of it will inevitably be a political one.

Given that, without a massive demonstration of public support for the Directives, the RSPB and many other NGOs are concerned that this review will lead to the Nature Directives being weakened.

We will not tolerate a weakening of wildlife protection!

We need to remind our politicians that the Directives were established on the smart principle that no Member State should gain competitive advantage by trashing their natural environment, and that attempts to meet international commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity will be seriously undermined if the Directives were weakened.

We're working with partners across the UK and EU to ensure that European leaders are left in no doubt that the citizens of the UK and Europe care passionately about nature and won't tolerate a weakening of its protection.

That is why, along with over 100 other organisations across the UK - including Friends of the Earth, the Marine Conservation Society, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Wildlife Trusts - we have launched a major campaign to defend the Directives.

We are asking as many of you as possible to respond to the public consultation - and to encourage your friends and family to do the same.



Join the consultation: Please just take a few moments to respond to the consultation. Just two minutes of your time could help make a crucial difference to the future of our wildlife!

Beceause it's quite long and technical, we have pre-answered a subset of questions (alongside explanations of the answers) that people can submit to the Commission via a few simple clicks.

Martin Harper is the Conservation Director at the RSPB - the largest conservation NGO in Europe. Having studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, he worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife. After that he joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.

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