Among the many, many things that the EU regulates, are a handful of little-known laws that have helped protect the UK countryside. They are called the Birds and Habitat Directives.
The Birds Directive provides a legal framework, binding for all EU countries, for the protection of all wild birds in the EU, including their eggs, nests and habitats. The Habitats Directive protects habitats and the animals that rely on them, including wetlands, meadows and marine habitats.
For the past 35 years, from Dorset to Islay, these Directives have protected species from housing developments, tractors and roads, making sure their habitats and migratory journeys are safe from harm.
As the UK prepares to leave the EU, this is all at risk - unless the government commits to safeguarding these environmental protections. Whatever Brexit deal is finally negotiated, the government has to provide reassurance now that, the standards currently upheld via EU directives will be maintained or strengthened within UK law.
We’ve come a long way in protecting some iconic species and we need to make sure all that hard work isn’t lost. Here are four species that were saved thanks to the EU’s nature directives.
In the 20th century the otter population was in freefall across Europe, leading to extinctions across vast areas. By the mid-1970s, only a handful of otters remained. As well as hunting, persecution and habitat fragmentation, otters were heavily impacted upon by the degradation of rivers and waterways. Run-off from fields was bringing a high and concentrated dose of pesticides into the rivers, leading to a huge decline in biodiversity. The impacts up the food chain to top predators, such as otters, were huge.
Since then, the The Habitats Directive, that specifically lists otters as a species for protection, has ensured that over 175,000 hectares across the UK have been specifically protected for otters. The Water Framework Directive has also enforced continued improvements in water quality which otters depend on for food. Over 70 Special Areas of Conservation have been singled out as important to help protect otters' habitats.
There is still a long way to go, but gradually otters are returning to river systems across the UK.
Puffins have been officially declared as being in danger of extinction following a massive decline in numbers across Northern Europe. This decline is mostly down to over-fishing and warming oceans due to climate change which reduce the sand-eel food supply close to their breeding grounds.
On Flamborough Cliffs however the puffin population seems to be relatively stable. Flamborough Head is Europe’s largest mainland seabird colony and a stronghold for puffins. The site is protected under the Birds and Habitats Directive.
Bitterns used to be common in England, but a variety of factors, including hunting and the drainage of England's wetlands resulted in their extinction by 1886. Early in the 20th century the population slowly began to return, but water pollution and poor habitat management resulted in the population declining again by the 1990s.
The Bittern is a protected species under the Wild Birds Directive. Its preferred reed-bed habitat is likewise protected under the Habitats Directive. Through a mix of site protection, habitat creation and improved nature reserve management, the population today is at least 75 male birds, mostly in southern England.
When the Nature Directives came into force in the late 1970s, the red kite was a rare bird in the UK. The Birds Directive designated red kites as legally protected species and following some EU-funded reintroduction projects, population of the red kite has increased by over 2000%!
If you want to make sure that our Nature laws are safeguarded even after we leave the EU, sign up here to protect the Laws of Nature!