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Will environmental protections go up in smoke after Brexit?

BBC presenter Sir David Attenborough with Boris Johnson. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/PA Wire.

Analysis of the impact of a no-deal, or weak deal, has focused on the impact on trade. But, says DR MARK AVERY, it will also bring consequences for the environment.

Four years after the Brexit vote, and almost nine months through the one-year transition period, we are still unclear as to the impacts of Brexit on future environmental protection in the UK. That’s because our environmental future will be greatly determined by the type of trade deal, or lack of it, that the UK agrees with the European Union. Many would say that it is a topsy-turvy world where environmental protection picks up the scraps from a trade negotiation rather than the other way around, but so it is.

The terms of any trade deal with the EU will determine, through any commitments to level playing fields, how close to current EU-wide (and currently, UK-wide too) environmental standards the UK will remain. If we exit with no deal or a weak deal, which seems quite possible, then the future is very uncertain.

Under a no-deal, the UK would stand on January 1, 2021, less than 100 days away, with the legislation that has been transcribed into UK law, and some gaps where it hasn’t. But then what happens? Ministers have been eager to stress that nothing will change on the day we end the transition period but less clear in commitments to maintain environmental standards. Taking back control will be seen as an opportunity by some, to weaken environmental protection, particularly where it is seen as any constraint on economic growth in a time of recession.

Environmental protection has been a success of the European project. Greenhouse gases, air pollution, water pollution, habitat loss and species decline have all been addressed over the last 50 years.

You won’t find environmentalists saying that everything is perfect, but the truth is that the framework exists and can be improved gradually and much has been done. This has been for two reasons.

The first brings us back to trade and level playing fields. In a common market it was seen as important that all member states stuck to the same environmental (and social) standards because that was fair and it meant that trading advantage could not be gained through lower environmental standards. But also, the EU rode a wave of environmentalism in its early days and there was real enthusiasm to make the world a better place.

The UK played a significant role in all of this. Let us never forget that the Habitats Directive was drafted by a British civil servant and former MEP, one Stanley Johnson.

Johnson Senior’s directive will remain in place, as transcribed in UK law, on January 1, but under a no-deal it is up for grabs. This government or any future government could slash its protections to pieces as part of taking back control and some of us have always thought that this was a strong motive behind the enthusiasm of some individuals for Brexit.

It must be said that the UK would also have the ability to strengthen the existing legislation under a no-deal and make everything miles better, but we’ve seen no such proposals and the environmental movement sees this as a vanishingly slim possibility. No, everything we see and hear from government makes us fear for the future.

We environmentalists are often seen as miserable Cassandras prophesying doom all the time, but remember, Cassandra was right.

Let us examine one aspect of current environmental policy where a no-deal Brexit will have strong implications for an environmental outcome and that is heather burning on grouse moors.

Some people will pay thousands of pounds for a day’s red grouse shooting where participants wait in little shelters, grouse butts, as a line of people waving flags and blowing whistles ‘drive’ the birds on the moorland over the guns and as they pass overhead they are shot at.

A day’s grouse shooting can set you back more than £5,000 and so participants expect large numbers of target birds to be present. One way to increase red grouse numbers is to burn the heather in patches every year to form a mosaic of different ages: tall heather provides shelter and young heather provides better nourishment for the grouse.

Grouse shooting occurs in the uplands of northern England and much of south and eastern Scotland, and in just a few places in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a peculiarly British pastime and although grouse are shot in other EU countries there is nothing as elaborate as driven grouse shooting elsewhere, and nothing like the intensive management through burning.

The trouble with burning in these areas is that they are mostly rich in peat soils and those soils comprise a massive carbon store if they are protected. For thousands of years the rotting bodies of small mosses have formed the peat and are still doing so. These blanket bogs are a priority habitat in Johnson Senior’s Habitats Directive.

Back in October 2012 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) complained to Europe over the UK’s failure to protect blanket bogs and the EU Commission took this up and started infraction proceedings against the UK.

The government stalled for time and asked land owners to behave better, but they didn’t, which led the Defra minister Zac Goldsmith to state, in October 2019, that because a voluntary approach had failed government would act to ban burning of heather in peatlands.

In January this year, the Committee on Climate Change called for a ban on burning on peatlands to be introduced this year. As yet nothing has happened and rumours are growing that the promise may be ditched.

Every member state has its own pet industries and every one bends the EU rules in places, but if the UK had stayed in the EU then the issue of burning on peatlands would have been settled by now, and settled in favour of the environment.

As it is, nothing is resolved. Recent reporting of the government’s enthusiasm to make sure that grouse shooting could continue despite the ‘rule of six’ is another example of how close the Westminster government is to the shooting industry.

Yet another example is the fact that wildlife crime against protected wildlife on grouse moors is rife. One wonders whether protected status for eagles, falcons and harriers may be weakened in the event of no-deal – it never could have been if we had remained nor could be if we strike a close trade deal with the EU.I expect to see environmental protection reduced over the next few years if we leave the EU with no deal. Burning of heather is just an example, but it’s an example which rings warning bells. At a time of recession all industries will lobby for concessions so that they can get back on their feet.

But there is an interesting twist to how all this might play out under no-deal. We joined the EEC as a united kingdom but we leave the EU as a devolved UK with environmental powers almost fully devolved.

The dismantling of environmental protection I fear can take place at different paces, in different ways in all four UK nations – there may not be a level playing field within the UK.

  • Dr Mark Avery is a former conservation director of the RSPB, author, blogger and a co-founder (with Chris Packham and Ruth Tingay) of the not-for-profit organisation Wild Justice which campaigns for environmental change and takes legal challenges against statutory bodies to uphold existing wildlife laws

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