From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

What does leaving the EU mean for UK wildlife?

From farming and fisheries to our rivers and air, the EU has shaped the way we manage our environment, so what will happen when we are no longer part of it?

Otter populations in our rivers have recovered recently partly because of improved water quality. © MikeLane45/iStock
Published: August 11, 2016 at 7:06 am
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It’s hard to find much uniting us in Britain on the subject of the EU, but there is one thing that most people can agree on: there was little or no mention in the run-up to the referendum of what the impact on wildlife would be if we voted to leave, particularly given that many of the laws that dictate the way we manage our environment are based on EU directives.


Campaigners say that the lack of any debate means that there is no mandate to weaken regulations that protect wildlife.

“Ask someone if they like ‘red tape’, and they’ll say no, but ask them if they like a Natura 2000 site next to their home, and they’ll say they do,” said Sam Lowe of Friends of the Earth.

Whether any environmental legislation originating from Brussels remains after ‘Brexit’ will depend on the agreement reached between the UK and the EU.

If we remain in the European Economic Area, for example, as non-EU states such as Norway and Iceland are, then many of the directives will still apply.

But as Martin Harper, conservation director of the RSPB, pointed out, the British government is committed to restoring wildlife populations, regardless of whether or not we are in the EU, adding, “If they do anything to water down existing laws, we will fight them.”

Protected areas

Much has been made of the role of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives in protecting wildlife in the UK.

In essence, they work by restricting development in so-called Natura 2000 reserves, and most conservation groups campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU because of the benefits for biodiversity they confer.

But according to Harper, Brexit won’t inevitably lead to our most precious wildlife sites being buried under tonnes of concrete.

“There is a presumption against development in Natura sites,” he said. “But the national planning guidance applies the same set of tests to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). That says that you need to seek alternatives if there is harm, and if it goes ahead, you must compensate.”

Harper used the example of Lodge Hill in Kent, an SSSI for its nightingales.

A planning application for 5,000 houses has not – so far – been approved because of its SSSI status, and this is due to go to a public inquiry in 2017.


How we farm in the UK has largely been controlled by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

This distributes subsidies to farmers based on the area they farm, with a smaller proportion of payments allocated on the basis of the public, environmental benefits of what they do.

The National Farmers Union argued against Brexit on the grounds that these subsidies could be at risk if we left the EU. Conservation bodies argue that CAP – the environmental payments aside – has been bad for farmland wildlife, because the subsidy is paid irrespective of the impact on biodiversity.

“CAP does both good and bad things,” said Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, “but leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to look at the whole system of farm payments and do something really innovative for wildlife.”


The way we fish has also been controlled by an EU mechanism – the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which sets quotas based on independent scientific advice.

Though marine experts acknowledged that the CFP isn’t perfect, they felt it was working to ensure that fishing within the EU would be “sustainable” by 2020.

According to Debbie Crockard of the Marine Conservation Society, the UK won’t be getting different advice on how much we can fish once we are outside the EU, but we could implement that advice differently. “We don’t want those targets for achieving sustainability to drag,” she added.


The standards we adhere to in terms of the quality of our fresh and bathing water are governed by EU rules.

And while there is evidence that our rivers are cleaner now than they have been for decades, that doesn’t mean that they are in a particularly good state.

The previous coalition administration said there was an urgent need to improve the quality of our estuaries, streams and lakes because – under the Water Framework Directive – only 27 per cent were in a “good state”.

Bathing waters are doing better – statistics published earlier this year show that 90 per cent of our beaches are in “excellent” or “good” condition.

Nevertheless, there are still thousands of incidents of untreated sewage and waste water being discharged into our seas and rivers each year.

Other issues

A range of other environmental issues will be affected by the UK leaving the EU.

The quality of our air is dictated by EU regulation, and this is especially pertinent because air does not recognise national borders – 34 per cent of our air pollution comes from the European mainland, and we ‘export’ 77 per cent of ours over there.

And the EU currently has in place a temporary ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids, which scientists say have hit populations of insects such as bees and butterflies – this will become an issue for the British government outside the EU.


28,000km2 Total area of land in the UK covered by the European Commission’s Birds Directive in 376 special protection areas

80,000km2 The amount of UK territory designated as 650 separate special areas of conservation under the Habitats Directive

108,000km2 The combined area of UK land and offshore sites protected for wildlife by EU directives

71% The number of UK species covered by the Birds Directive

43% The number of UK species covered by the Habitats Directive


18% of land area and 6% of marine territory are designated across the whole of the EU by the Birds and Habitats Directives under the Natura 2000 network of protected areas


James FairWildlife journalist

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