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Widllife coaliation warns the government is in danger of exterminating ‘iconic’ UK species through post-Brexit deregulations

A coalition of wildlife and environmental interest groups is calling on the government to “prevent gaps in the law” that could lead to disaster for animal and plant species throughout the UK. It comes as the UK takes part in the UN’s conference on biodiversity, COP15. And the coalition draws attention to the EU leaving bill.

Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) said on 12 December that the UK’s wildlife is at risk of devastation and extinction under deregulation plans by the government. The coalition, which brings together 67 organisations including Greenpeace, International Fund for Animal Welfare and the RSPB, said that a new bill would:

undermine legal commitments to halt the decline of nature by 2030 and could derail the UK’s credibility as an international environmental leader

Criticism of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill are widespread, with environmental and wildlife campaigners concerned over the impact it will have on more than 1000 laws.

The bill is part of the process of leaving the EU. It gives ministers the opportunity to revoke EU laws that pertain to the UK and to create new, alternative laws in their place. Because it is yet to come into force, there’s no direct measure of what it means to UK wildlife. However, WCL and other environmental organisations have pointed to the government’s legacy of inaction as a point of concern.

Undermining biodiversity

WCL said retained EU laws help protect “iconic” UK species including bats, otters and the fenland orchid. The laws also help protect important ecosystems such as those found in Lundy and Breckland. But weakening regulations when translating them from EU to UK law could lead to disaster. In one example, it said the loss of water quality protections in EU law could “undermine” the successful recovery of Britain’s otter population.

Close up of an otter's face.
Otter, via Leo Reynolds/Flickr.

Furthermore, the government’s past inaction on environmental and wildlife targets has given cause for concern. Although it claimed in a COP15 press release on 7 December that it “has already led the way” in taking action on biodiversity crises. And it highlights the Environment Act as one example of a “raft of protections” for wildlife. But WCL already submitted a formal complaint to Office for Environmental Protection after the government missed its October 2022 deadline for setting targets outlined in the Environment Act 2021.

The COP15 press release also claimed the UK would “negotiate to… protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030”. But WCL pointed out that it is failing on this within its own borders. The Guardian reported in August 2021 how the dominance of grouse moors across Britain’s national parks is also detrimental to this target. With national parks counted as part of that 30%, the Guardian quoted Rewilding Britain policy coordinator Guy Shrubsole saying that such targets:

rings hollow when you realise that vast areas of our national parks are dominated by these nature-impoverished and heavily managed areas.

It’s no surprise, then, that representatives of the shooting industry celebrated the introduction of Retained EU Law Bill.

Grim performance

With this grim performance in mind, there are grave concerns over the Retained EU Law Bill. International organisation Client Earth said the bill will give ministers the chance to “revoke, replace, restate or update retained EU law without proper parliamentary oversight”. While Dr Richard Banwell, CEO of WCL, said this could be a detriment to any chance for nature recovery:

The Retained EU Law bill puts protection for wildlife at risk. Hundreds of laws are at stake, which could be lost or replaced by Ministers with scarcely any scrutiny.

At a time when Government cuts mean every Department is stretched, the Government is proposing a costly legal facelift, with no justification for how it could benefit our environment. The Environment Department is already falling behind on many of the Government’s flagship nature commitments. This could set nature recovery back by years.

WCL also previously outlined how the new bill might increase wildlife crime. It voiced concern that hastily rewritten rules could weaken “the legislative underpinning for tackling common wildlife crimes”.

Google Maps satellite view of Axe Edge Moor in Staffordshire. Extensive burning of heather for grouse shooting has scarred the landscape.
Axe Edge Moor scarred by burning for grouse shooting, via Google Maps.

It’s also worth noting that environment minister Therese Coffey told a committee in November that the government had already scrapped 140 EU-originated regulations.

No time to slow down

Protect the Wild recently highlighted the alarming rate of biodiversity decline in the UK. The mindset behind it is the same mindset that sees groups of people still out murdering birds and mammals for fun on a weekly basis. It’s no surprise, then, that the government is dragging its feet on biodiversity as it does on the hunting and shooting industry. But this is no time for lagging behind. As with the climate crisis, plunging biodiversity could turn into a death-spiral for all of us.

Featured image via Bernard DuPont/Wikimedia.