Guest Blog from Ian Hepburn. Defending Nature: the UK battle is far from over

With a conference to review the effectiveness of the EU Nature Directives (Birds and Habitats) – the Fitness Check process, taking place in Brussels tomorrow, I’m thrilled to publish a timely guest blog from Ian Hepburn. Ian has had a long association with the EU nature directives spanning the last 35 years. He currently leads on conservation policy for the Sussex Wildlife Trust.


The European Commission’s on-line public consultation earlier this year seeking views on whether the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive – the backbone of EU wildlife policy – are ‘fit for purpose’ was met with a virtual avalanche of comments from individuals and organisations. An unprecedented half a million responses from across the 28 Member States are not easy to ignore. And then in late in October, a joint letter from nine EU environment ministers –with Germany in the lead– urged the European Commission not to weaken the nature directives. The UK was not among the nine signatories.


So the EU’s own review process is not the only threat to the nature directives. Perhaps more worrying for the UK is the risk that we could lose these important wildlife safeguards –along with other environmental protection measures adopted by the EU. This might result from the reforms of the EU which the current Government and officials have been discussing behind closed doors, or there’s the real possibility that in the next couple of years we could be negotiating the terms of our withdrawal from the European Union.


In his 6-page letter to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk last week, David Cameron inevitably concentrates on headline topics for EU reform. The environment doesn’t feature explicitly among the concerns in the spotlight and which dominate political debates and media interest. But the big risk lies in that phrase which Mr Cameron uses it “… really boil[s] down to one word: flexibility.”


There is little doubt that EU environmental legislation will be caught up in the whirlpool of negotiations as the politicians and officials ratchet up diplomatic discussions over the coming weeks and months. It’s no secret that successive UK governments have been less than a hundred percent behind the nature directives. For example, the Environment Secretary of the time made derogatory public comment on the draft Habitats Directive when it was launched in the late 80s; in 2011 the Chancellor used his Autumn Statement to mount an attack on the nature directives; and just a couple of weeks ago our Environment Secretary was notably absent from the signatories to the joint letter to the EU Environment Commissioner supporting the nature directives. Just what ‘flexibility’ might mean for the future of the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive we have yet to find out.


So in a light-hearted attempt to raise the profile of, and some of the risks to, the nature directives, here are some personal thoughts on what a frank ‘environmental postscript’ to David Cameron’s letter, untrammelled by the protocols of diplomatic language, might have looked like …





letter head




(and for the avoidance of doubt, the following is no more than speculation, but firmly rooted in reality)


You will, I am sure, be well aware that here in the United Kingdom we are pretty good at looking after our lovely countryside and all the wild creatures we are lucky enough still to have here. I want to be absolutely clear that we really don’t need to be told by interfering Eurocrats in Brussels or know-better-than-you judges tucked away in the Court of Justice in Luxembourg how to take care of British wildlife.

You only have to look at our track record. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Our eagle-eyed friends in the wildlife non-government organisations just two years ago told us how well we’ve done in the last half a century. The statistics prove it. Nearly half the species for which we have adequate data (of which there are 3,148) have not declined over the last 50 years. And only half of the 60% in decline have declined strongly. That’s pretty good, isn’t it?

And just what has European environment law contributed to this? Well, OK, I admit that the birds given the highest level of protection through the Birds Directive have generally performed better than those not so well protected by EU law; and these same species have done better in EU members states than in other parts of Europe. And, yes, I accept that if it The Solent hadn’t been classified as a Special Protection Area, then we probably would have built a nice new port at Dibden Bay, neatly filling in the last stretch of natural intertidal habitat along the western shore of the estuary. But that’s the point, isn’t it? All these legal measures to protect the environment just block development. The so-called nature directives and the regulations which oblige us to examine carefully the likely environmental consequences of big development projects and of strategic plans and programmes, expecting that they’ll be toned down if the effects seem too harsh … they all simply get in the way. No, you can keep your EIA Directive, your SEA Directive, your Birds Directive and your Habitats Directive and all the rest.

What I want is to run a country that’s free from such environmental considerations; free to decide how much wildlife we allow to be damaged, which refuges for plants and animals we permit to be destroyed. A flexible approach to looking after nature.

I am confident that we can look after our own great crested newts, our bats and dormice, our hen harriers, chalk streams, heathlands, reedbeds, coastal dunes and shingle habitats and all the rest perfectly well thank you very much. After all, look at how well we managed before we joined Europe. Back in the good old days, when our heroic conservation scientists found evidence that pesticides were killing off our birds of prey, we acted promptly. It took us a mere 2o years to ban the use of the offending chemicals. Just look at the mess we’re in now over neonicotinoids, all because of the interference of European institutions imposing bans in such a hurry. And we would, of course, eventually have got around to looking after our rivers and seas better. We didn’t need to be rushed into it by being obliged to create that Natura 2000 network, forced on us by those pesky nature directives.

So my solution is clear. You let us have an opt-out from all these annoying environmental laws, allowing us the freedom to decide for ourselves how we look after our countryside, rivers, coasts and seas, which species and habitats need to be protected and the sites that need to be safeguarded. Or you could just scrap these regulations and directives. I’m entirely flexible on this. Either would suit us; the choice is yours.

Looking forward to a constructive discussion on this before we go to our voters,

Yours, etc.







About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Birds Directive, David Cameron, European Commission, European environment policy, Habitats Directive and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Guest Blog from Ian Hepburn. Defending Nature: the UK battle is far from over

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    National protected area systems in Europe existed long before the Habitats Directive, and it is not surprising that implementation of the Natura system is left to member states using predominantly their own national legislation for designation. It is not 100% in all countries – some Natura sites in some countries are secured under licence – but there is a presumption in Britain that protection of Natura sites is by SSSI designation.

    So, it has to be asked what more does the Natura system bring to bear that our own protected area legislation, coupled with species protection, doesn’t? For instance, if a new port had gone ahead at Dibden Bay, then it would have been a failing of the SSSI designation. You have to ask yourself why an SPA should make it any less likely? If the answer is that the Natura system enables super-national scrutiny, then that is also indicative of a failing of the SSSI system.

    For some, it is the additional aspects of the directives over and above what our legislation necessarily provides, and that is the ex-situ strictures that can be applied to development or activity that may have an effect on in-situ conservation. I have my own issues about how those strictures are determined, but it is an aspect of the directives that is often cited as a virtue (and parodied above). Is this aspect really under threat? Is the heat and light over this fitness check really informing the public of the real issues?

    If you are repeatedly told that the European system provides the highest level of protection, what lengths would you go to question that if no one else did? Would you bother to question your own national legislation and its failings, being unaware that its is supposedly the backbone of the implementation? I just wonder how effective our conservation industry is in involving the public rather than just using it as fodder-reaction to scare stories. There is some very telling data in an attitude survey of Europeans that shows a public concern about “biodiversity” in the UK, but if you ask them whether they have heard of the Natura 2000 network, only 4% have, and if you ask them if they know what it is, only 2% do!
    ATTITUDES OF EUROPEANS TOWARDS BIODIVERSITY, Special Eurobarometer 436, European Commission October 2015

    Lets hope your people and nature initiative begins to tackle this.

  2. The post is amusing but the problems of protecting habitats and wildlife remains too thorny an issue and there is often little awareness of this. However I think environmentalists where I am in Spain appreciate the EU directives as they face a hard task and need more supporters.

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