Saltmarsh, Abbotts-Hall-Farm, Essex. Water marshland and large rainbow in cloudy sky.

EU nature laws: why we still need them after Brexit

EU nature laws — what they are, how we’ve defended them, and why we’ll still need them post-Brexit
  Published:  16 Oct 2017    |      Last updated:  05 Sep 2022    |      4 minute read

The European Union's Birds Directive and Habitats Directive are together commonly known as the EU nature laws. They're the biggest and most ambitious initiatives for protecting natural landscapes and wildlife in the UK and across Europe.

For the past few decades these laws have helped protect roughly 1,000 types of rare and vulnerable wild creatures, plants and places.

Crucially, the EU nature laws have made it possible for all 28 EU countries to work together on conservation issues. That’s particularly important when it comes to very mobile wildlife, like birds and sealife, which don’t stick within political or geographic borders.

Whatever you think about the EU, figures from an RSPB report show that before the EU’s nature laws we were losing 15% of our protected sites a year. Now that’s down to just 1%. We need to keep up and improve that protection no matter what happens with Brexit.

Red deer stag, on the hills of Snowdonia National Park, UK, under an angry sky.
Red deer stag, Snowdonia National Park, UK
Credit: iStock

Natura 2000 – Europe’s conservation network

One crucial outcome of the EU nature laws has been the creation of a network of more than 27,000 ecological conservation areas across Europe. Each site is scientifically selected by the individual EU countries, and the whole Natura 2000 Network so far covers nearly 20% of Europe’s land mass and surrounding seas. It’s the biggest coordinated network of conservation areas in the world.

Some of the UK’s best-loved landscapes are protected this way, including Dartmoor, the North York Moors, Epping Forest, Cannock Chase, Flamborough Head and Snowdonia.

Moorland, Yorkshire, UK. Heather in foreground, fields behind, clouds and rainbow above.
Moorland, Yorkshire, UK
Credit: Thinkstock

Positive effects of EU nature laws

EU nature laws have protected the UK’s wildlife and environment in lots of ways. A few examples…

Birds – EU nature laws have helped the recovery of the bittern, a rare short-necked heron, which almost disappeared because of drastic loss of its reedbed habitat and other pressures.

Other birds whose environments have directly benefited from EU involvement include the stunningly charismatic red kite and the quirkily cute puffin.

Bees – you probably know (maybe because we keep saying it) that the UK has already lost more than a dozen types of bee, and another 35 kinds are at risk. But several precious bee species are found in EU-protected places such as Lewes Downs in Sussex, and the salt marshes of the east coast.

In 2013 a majority of EU countries voted to restrict the use of 3 honeybee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides. The UK government opposed the restrictions.

Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) extracting nectar from a flower.
Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)
Credit: Neil James Brain/Great British Bee Count 2016

Sealife – Before the EU laws there were just 3 protected marine areas around the British coastline. Now there are over 100 Natura 2000 sites in UK seas. EU nature laws protect important fish stocks, like Atlantic salmon, as well as our beautiful cold-water reefs. (Did you know the UK had coral reefs?)

Alongside other EU legislation, like the Bathing Water Directive, the nature laws commit EU members to restoring and protecting the aquatic environment. Incidentally, the UK was still pumping untreated sewage straight into the sea until the late 1990s, and was forced to clean up its act by the EU.

Reef bed in a Scottish sea loch, with sunstar, brittlestars and anemones in a green sea.
Reef bed in a Scottish sea loch, with sunstar, brittlestars and anemones
Credit: Alexander Mustard/2020VISION

Brexit could threaten nature laws

While the UK government has take steps to keep EU legislation working in the UK in the immediate-term, it’s not a given that they will continue with the nature laws in the long-term outside the EU.

In the past the UK’s environmental record was weak. We’d often only take action once damage had already happened, rather than taking measures to prevent harm. The UK has a poor track record of putting nature first.

EU protections have also forced our government to protect our environment when they have otherwise been reluctant to do so. EU pressure created protected areas for porpoises at Dogger Bank that would not have otherwise been implemented. It also prevented developments on Dorset’s Talbot Heath that would have destroyed the homes of rare reptiles and birds. And created new protected areas where others have been lost.

During the EU referendum campaign the farming minister and prominent leave campaigner George Eustice MP told The Guardian that "the Birds and Habitats Directives would go" if we voted to leave the EU. He went on to describe the EU nature laws as "spirit crushing".

But Friends of the Earth has already successfully campaigned to protect these nature laws, along with our allies at the RSPB and WWF. And we can do it again.

Back in 2015 the European Commission proposed revising and possibly weakening its nature directives, in response to unproven claims that they were damaging to business.

More than half a million EU citizens, including over 100,000 from the UK, signed a petition in protest. We were there to help deliver the signatures to Brussels. The Commission listened – it agreed not to water down the nature laws, and to start making sure they're properly acted on instead.

It’s clear that our voices have been heard in the Brexit debate. Former Prime Minister Theresa May pledged that “When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union we will strengthen and enhance the protections our countryside, rivers, coastline and wildlife habitats enjoy”. But if we don’t respect EU nature laws after exit - by properly funding the monitoring and enforcement needed to keep important species and habitats safe - Brexit could be detrimental to our wildlife and environment.

So how do we protect our nature laws now?

We need to keep telling politicians how important it is for us to have a healthy natural environment, and to protect it for generations to come. You can be sure that Friends of the Earth will keep reminding them. We hope you will too.

While the government has taken steps to bring all EU laws – including the nature directives – into UK law in the short-term, there is still a risk they could be weakened.

The environmental problems we face are bigger than the UK. Air pollution travels across borders. Migrating birds face increasing risks. And climate change is a very real and urgent threat that needs global action. We need to work on these issues at home and also with our European neighbours, and globally.

We’re sure that the pressure from our brilliant supporters and other concerned citizens can influence decision-makers – and convince them to strengthen, not weaken, laws that will protect nature into the future.

You can help us keep up the pressure right now.