The Environment Act: a once in a generation opportunity for wildlife.

Bluebells - Luke Massey/2020VISION

Lots of people get in touch with the Wildlife Trust with concerns about wildlife or habitats near to them being disturbed, damaged or destroyed. Most assume that such acts must be prohibited by law and people are incredibly surprised to learn that invariably this not the case. The Environment Act is a once in generation opportunity to strengthen protection for the UK’s wildlife and embed nature’s recovery in law.

The role of legislation

Wholescale reviews of wildlife legislation are rare. Much of the strongest protection for UK wildlife comes from European legislation. Following the UK’s withdrawal from Europe there is both a threat that laws will be dropped alongside an opportunity for improving them and providing a legal basis for nature’s recovery. The Environment Bill, which will eventually pass into law as the Environment Act, is that opportunity. Legislation can be a dry topic, one often overlooked by wildlife enthusiasts, but a strong Environment Act will be transformational for wildlife. A weak Act could once again consign the UK to being dubbed the ‘Dirty Man of Europe.’

Firstly, it is important to recognise that legislation is not a silver bullet to reversing wildlife declines. It can make an important difference (1) but it must be part of a wider toolbox that enables individuals, communities, organisations and businesses to make the changes needed to support nature’s recovery. Strong wildlife laws help us to make the right decisions for wildlife and prevent damaging actions, but we need far more people taking action if we are to save the UK’s biodiversity. 

Meadow - James Adler

Meadow - James Adler

Benefits all-round

Let’s not forget that laws benefitting wildlife and the environment invariably benefit people as well. Many of the UK’s earliest environmental laws protected people from public health from issues such as sewage and air pollution. The fact that nature also benefited was a happy coincidence. Even the 1869 Act to protect seabirds from egg collecting and persecution was mainly driven by concerns that seabird declines would reduce ability of ships to safely navigate.  

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that laws solely driven by wildlife concerns first appeared. In 1981, the seminal Wildlife and Countryside Act became the first comprehensive UK legislation, protecting threatened species and strengthening protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest. This was followed by the Environmental Protection Act in 1990, aiming to clean up Britain’s air and waterways after the UK had been labelled the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ due to causing acid rain and having rivers and beaches that were unfit for people and wildlife. 

The UK hasn’t introduced any significant new wildlife legislation off its own back since then. The 1997 hedgerow regulations are notoriously weak, and 2006 NERC Act has had little impact.

Gannets and gulls - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Gannets and gulls - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

I thought wildlife was already protected by law?

The strongest legal protection for nature currently comes via the European Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. This includes four key principles that have proven invaluable to organisations like the Wildlife Trust in saving wildlife from threats. These are; 

  • The polluter pays principle - anybody responsible for producing pollution should also be responsible for paying for the damage done to the environment as a result of that pollution.

  • The precautionary principle – action must be taken to avoid potential negative impacts where there is reasonable evidence these may occur. 

  • The preventative principle - promotes the prevention of environmental harm as opposed to remedying harm that has been caused.

  • Sustainable development - development must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This still falls short of providing the protection needed to halt and reverse biodiversity declines, with just 7.6% of land in England designated for wildlife (2) and only tiny proportion (3) of the UK’s estimated 70,000 species (4) having any sort of legal protection. This is in a country ranked 189th globally for the intactness of its biodiversity and where 41% of species are estimated to be declining (5). By only protecting the most valuable biodiversity sites and a small proportion of threatened species, primarily the more charismatic ones, we overlook the vast majority of species and wildlife rich habitats. The lack of protection has been a significant driver of wildlife declines by allowing the widespread and ongoing erosion of the quality, quantity and connectivity of wildlife-rich habitat across the UK. 

Turtle dove - Dawn Monrose

Turtle dove - Dawn Monrose

What will the Environment Act do?

Legislation that takes an entire ecosystem approach can have much great impact, as it considers broader threats to that ecosystem. Protection and positive action on an ecosystem scale can benefit many species rather than just a select few, and it can generate considerable benefits for people. One example is the EU Water Framework Directive, which aims to improve the quality of our stream, rivers, lakes and seas. This will ensure we have safe water to drink and swim in, but also benefits the wildlife that lives in these habitats. There is no hiding behind the fact that the UK is doing terribly in meeting the targets – only 16% of the UK’s rivers, streams and lakes are in good ecological condition and 0% are in good overall condition (6), however, it has stimulated a lot of action and investment. The bad news is that this landmark piece of environmental legislation could be weakened as the UK moves away from European legislation, as has been suggested by the CEO of the Environment Agency (7).  

The Environment Act will replace all existing EU wildlife land environmental laws, which perhaps makes it the biggest moment for UK wildlife in the last 40 years. The draft Bill was published in 2019 and has gone through a series of parliament committees with proposed amendments. So how is it looking? Well there are some positive proposals, such as giving full protection status to hedgehogs. There are however many concerns, particularly where existing legislation would be weakened and where there is insufficient commitment to embedding nature’s recovery in law.  

There is also the issue of enforcement. Up to now offenders, including public bodies and the Government, could face significant fines for breaking laws. A new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is being established to take on the role of enforcing the Environment Act but it will not be able to issue fines, which was the main deterrent previously. It is vital that the OEP is not only independent of Government but able to hold it to account when needed. Whilst better resolution to breaches of wildlife legislation can often be achieved through dialogue rather than fines, it is important that the OEP has sufficient punitive powers to use when needed.    

Broadly speaking, nature’s recovery needs more and better-connected wildlife habitats and a reduction in the threats to its survival. This is achievable if we live more sustainably. Good legislation will remove the threats to wildlife, great legislation will also embed nature’s recovery into law and that is the Environment Act we need. 

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