Wildlife law: will we do any better this time?
As a committed environmentalist working with local communities to protect and restore our rivers and countryside, I feel we must make a stand if future generations together with our native wildlife, are to survive and prosper.
As we consider the implications of Brexit it is interesting to question, were it not for our membership of the EU over the last forty years, would we have developed similar environmental regulations, research programmes and grant payments, for wildlife and habitat protection? The list is considerable and includes the Habitats Directive, Special Areas of Conservation, Nitrates Directive and Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) to name but a few. I would venture that although far from perfect, the best of our current environmental legislation comes from the EU. The Water Framework Directive (WFD), for example. It may not have the most-catchy title but speaking as a passionate angler it’s the most innovative, far thinking and erudite piece of legislation you could wish for. The fact that successive governments have not pressed forward with its implementation is no failing of its inherent design or intent.
The Water Framework Directive is based on raising the “ecological status” of waterbodies that include rivers, lakes, groundwaters and coastal waters. Unusually, it operates at a natural (rather than political) scale, that being a river catchment or basin and as such it crosses countries, counties and borders. Thus it successfully unites EU member states around a common plan for the joint protection and improvement of the mighty Rhine or Danube and equally in the UK serves the Rivers Tweed or Wye, crossing England’s national borders. The WFD places the ecosystem and its function at its core and measures success through monitoring fish, invertebrates, diatoms, macrophytes (aquatic plants) and chemical contaminants as well as taking into account the geomorphology. Finally, as the Directive recognises catchment restoration and improvement will take time, it sets a timetable based on 6 yearly cycles 2015, 2021 and 2027. It also demands (under Article 14) that member states engage with local stakeholders in the design and implementation of the River Basin Management Plans.
The Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill sees any outstanding EU legislation not already transposed, incorporated into UK law through a “lift and shift” approach. This provides a “level playing field” for future negotiations on trade while leaving the option to tweak or develop laws as we go forward.
We face many pressures, not least a population density in England of over 1000 people per square mile, with UK population growth estimated by the ONS to rise to 70 million within a decade. The resulting industrial and domestic demands, puts considerable strain on our environment. Even though we may have generous rainfall throughout the year, population density means that in England we actually have less available water per head than any other EU country. The South East being particularly stressed resulting in unsustainable abstraction, depleted groundwaters and rivers literally drying up.
Our soils are eroding at an estimated 2.9 million tons a year in the UK and many insects, birds, fish and other indicators are in serious decline. The UK has a poor record on soils. The government has not conducted regular soil monitoring since the last Countryside Survey in 2007, and in 2012 UK ministers helped block a EU soil health directive. On top of this we have the impacts of climate change to consider. As a society we seem to be obsessed with short-term growth, and ignore the importance of the environment on which we depend for a wide range of ecosystem services that underpin our health, wellbeing and the economy.
As has been described many times, we pay three times for our food, the purchase price, the subsidy payment to support its production and then again for the damage and clean up costs left behind. These may include, energy costs, chemical residues, GHG emissions, pollution of drinking water supplies, damage to soils and loss of biodiversity. This is not the fault of our farmers who are driven by the CAP and consumer demand; we must all share the blame when a bottle of milk costs less on the supermarket shelf than a bottle of water!
I am not convinced that our home-grown wildlife laws have served us at all well with regard to the problems outlined above and although Brexit would seem a once in a lifetime opportunity to develop new laws, best suited to the UK, I would need to be convinced that in reality we will do any better this time around.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 has proven a powerful driver and has been rightly championed by NGO’s, seeking to hold successive governments as signatories, to account. However, the Ecosystem Approach, the delivery tool of the CBD to which the UK are also signatories, which features 12 principles for ecosystem managers, has received little attention. In the UK we have tended to ignore ecosystem function in favour of selected species or habitats and fortress conservation, in the form of small reserves. These do not provide sufficient area or connectivity for many species that require a range of habitats to complete their lifecycle, a problem highlighted by Professor Sir John Lawton in his report, “Making Space for Nature”.
We seem to celebrate icon or totem species like badgers, which in reality may, or may not, be particularly threatened. Yet ignore others, which may be endangered and far more critical to our ecosystems like pollinators and soil organisms. Similarly we have failed to take appropriate action on Invasive Non Native Species and have not invested sufficiently in bio-security measures, essential as an island. We are very confused about the difference between animal welfare and animal rights and would generally blame our problems on oversimplified stereotypes such as “hunting”, rather than deal with the reality, which may be complex and include a lack of habitat or chemical poisons in the food-chain. The decline and subsequent recovery of otter numbers as a result of limiting Aldrin and Dieldrin in the environment are a case in point.
Some issues have become so political they are almost impossible to discuss, like the presence TB in our wildlife. Interest in re-introductions is a new and developing area that is beginning to attract attention. Beavers, now present on an increasing number of rivers, may well prove a management problem in the future if their numbers increase in line with predictions. With an incomplete ecosystem, heavily modified rivers and waterways and no top predators how will beavers fare? At some time in the future if numbers become excessive, as in Germany after reintroductions, will we be prepared to modify their operations and cull them as the Germans do?
Many of our European neighbours place considerable value on communities, culture and heritage where country sports are often seen as an important contributor. Unlike the UK, many areas used for hunting and fishing are under the direct control of national or regional government. This means that these activities are often seen as a common right to be defended. By comparison the UK has most of its land and rivers under private ownership and government is very centralised. These and other inherent differences have meant that not all EU laws fit well, with those reliant on licencing systems particularly open to abuse, where the restriction of licences can in effect be used to close down an activity without redress.
There are many types of licencing systems, and one that is deemed to work well in England and Wales and favoured by participants is around angling. Here it is necessary to buy a licence for coarse and game fishing before casting a line. The licencing system is presently operated by the Environment Agency, the Defra Agency responsible for regulating the sector. When you purchase a licence it demands adherence to a series of bylaws, which protect the fish species and their welfare. It includes close seasons, controls on method and how fish are captured, “bag limits” and catch and release. However you will still need to get permission from the fisheries owner, buy a day ticket or join a club to have access to fishing. The licence raises around £20m a year, which unusually is hypothecated and spent by the Agency on fisheries management and improvement. Anglers in England and Wales are broadly supportive and feel they have a stronger voice as contributors, however similar moves have been resisted in Scotland and Ireland where other systems prevail. In the Netherlands the angling licencing system has been passed from the state to the national angling body, which has reduced transaction costs and given anglers more direct control of their sport.
If Brexit is to really bring the advantages to the UK that have been promised, we must seriously invest in the protection of our ecosystems and natural capital and get away from introducing laws as a matter of political expediency. Instead we must look at an integrated package that combines, education, guidance and incentives to do the right thing, underpinned by fair and equitable laws, fit for purpose that are properly enforced. If they fail this test they bring the law into disrepute. Good law needs to be intuitive, winning hearts and minds and create a positive culture of compliance. Such an equitable and integrated programme may be built around a uniting concept such as, “the polluter pays”.
If we are not to suffer economically from floods, droughts, poor water quality, reduced soil productivity, declining wildlife and fisheries, and we wish to enjoy and see the expansion of green spaces and the opportunity for young people to participate in angling and other country sports, we must protect and invest in our natural environment. The National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) estimated the benefits of UK inland wetlands to water quality of up to £1.5 billion per year and amenity benefits of living close to rivers, coasts and other wetlands of up to £1.3billion per year. There is a lot more than just angling and wildfowling at stake, important as that is!
In conclusion when considering the future of wildlife law, we should remember that democracy is about defending the rights and freedoms of minorities and that our countryside is not natural, and at best semi-natural. Many of our most important wildlife features like hedges or coppiced woodlands are man-made and require on-going management effort. For the last 40 years we have grown accustomed to relying on the EU to hold successive governments to account when it comes to meeting environmental and wildlife commitments, with powers of infraction if necessary. Who will hold government to account in the future?
Arlin Rickard is the Chief Executive of the environmental charity, The Rivers Trust. He enjoys country sports and is a keen angler. He lives on a small hill farm and is a Bodmin Moor Commoner.