July 13th, 2017
With the EU (Withdrawal) Bill – better known as the Great Repeal Bill – being published today, the potential impact of Brexit on wildlife and habitats in the UK is open to speculation.
Regardless of political borders, the natural environment across the island of Ireland is interlinked and Brexit holds the potential to impact on wildlife and habitat protection and conservation initiatives in the Republic, as well as in Northern Ireland.
The Great Repeal Bill will convert all EU law into domestic UK law, enabling the UK government to pass legislation to amend or repeal any piece of EU law it chooses.
For many environmental groups across the UK and Ireland, concern revolves around the fate of the Birds and Habitats Directives which form the cornerstone of the EU’s wildlife and habitat conservation policy.
The Habitats Directive safeguards the conservation of many rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species, as well as rare habitat types across Europe, while the Birds Directive protects all of the 500 wild bird species naturally occurring in the EU.
It is unclear what the consequences would be for the environment north and south of the border if the UK abandons these common levels of protection for habitats and species.
The recent selection of Tory MP Michael Gove as Secretary for the Environment fuelled concerns over Brexit’s potential impact on the Nature Directives.
Mr Gove’s track record on environmental matters is alarming and replete with contradictions (as Education Minister, he even attempted to have climate change removed from the geography school curriculum).
In March, The Independent reported that Mr Gove criticised the Habitats Directive for restricting housing developments and saying that, once Britain left the EU, it could remove such “absurd” regulations.
However, in June, Mr Gove completed a rhetorical U-turn, telling BBC Farming Today that Brexit will “enhance” UK wildlife laws and environmental protections.
According to BBC News, UK environmentalists welcomed his promises, but some remained sceptical and suspect Mr Gove’s comments to be mere window dressing.
Speaking to The Green News, Peter Morris of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust suggested that any dilution of the Nature Directives would have two effects.
Firstly, protected sites would be more vulnerable to development, and, secondly, the welfare of protected sites in the Republic could be at risk because “the neighbouring links in the chain have been removed”, he explained.
“It’s a bit like helping ducklings cross one busy road while removing the help for them to cross the next,” he added.
“Conservation has to be co-ordinated across territories if it is to help wildlife that crosses territories”.
He said that environmental organisations need a commitment from the UK government that protections will be maintained after Brexit to at least the same standards in the Republic and the rest of the EU.
Patrick Cregg, director of the Woodland Trust in Northern Ireland, echoed these concerns.
He explained that conservation charities want a repeal bill “that’s undiluted” as “otherwise we face the potential of weaker protection for our important habitats”.
Mr Cregg stressed the importance of taking an “all-Ireland approach” to environmental matters as many environmental issues have a “strong cross-border dimension”.
He pointed to the example of tree disease, a serious threat to woodlands and one that does not “recognise geographical borders”.
Threats such as this need to be tackled “on an all-Ireland basis”, he said, and called the Island of Ireland as a “single bio-geographic unit”.
Jennifer Fulton, Chief Executive Officer with Ulster Wildlife, said that the Nature Directives play “a critical role” in protecting the natural environment and need to be “effectively embedded” within future UK legislation.
Ms Fulton called on the UK Government “to step up to the mark and ensure policies are tailored to deliver the best possible result for current and future generations in all parts of the UK”, including devolved regions like Northern Ireland.
As reported by The Guardian this week, campaigners from major UK environmental organisations are putting forward key amendments to the Bill to address the threat of Brexit diluting environmental protections.
For the sake of the environment north and south of the Irish border, let’s hope they are successful.
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