European Nature Directives may be the best tool we have to protect NI’s natural environment

Colum Delaney, Conservation Officer, Policy Advocacy RSPB NI.

Just before Christmas I wrote an article for Slugger on the unprecedented cuts to the Department of the Environment’s budget, and in turn, the devastating affect that this would have across the environmental sector with the removal of the Natural Heritage Grants Programme. Whilst the exact ramifications aren’t yet clear, it’s certain that nature will once again be the loser.

Fresh from this sustained attack, a new danger has emerged from Europe. The EU Commission’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT) is designed to assess whether EU laws are doing the job for which they were intended. It is now the turn of the ‘Nature Directives’ for review.

Natura 2000 is the network of nature protection areas across the EU and are made up of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated under the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive. These protected nature conservation areas are the cornerstone of the EU’s nature policy and an important tool in the protection of nature across the EU.

The Directives provide essential protection to our rarest and most threatened species, and safeguard the best habitats for supporting a diversity of life across much of Europe. In the north of Ireland, sites such as Lough Neagh, (a wetland of international importance for a range of wintering species), Rathlin Island and Lough Erne are all examples of areas protected under European legislation for important species such as peregrine falcons, whooper swans and Greenland white-fronted geese.

Every year, thousands of people travel to Rathlin Island to witness the fantastic and noisy spectacle of huge numbers of seabirds such as puffins, fulmars and kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs around the island – the Nature Directives directly benefit species such as these.

It doesn’t take a scientist to work out that if you weaken the directives, you risk the protection of these species and the tourist potential for areas like Rathlin Island.

In November 2014 European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker wrote to the Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vela and asked him to ‘carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation.’

There is concern that some politicians want to weaken the Directives in the mistaken belief that less protection for wildlife is good for business. In fact the opening up of the directives would be disastrous for local companies. The Directives provide regulatory certainty and a level playing field – and altering them could lead to business uncertainty and investor risk.

Whilst the Directives are not perfect – they are the best tool we have to address the declines in biodiversity at a time when nature is in real trouble.

That’s why the RSPB and other environmental organisations across the EU are asking people to respond to the European Commission’s online public consultation on the future of the ‘Nature Directives’. We will be working hard to convince European leaders through weight of numbers that the directives are worth protecting.

Please consider taking our short and easy action here and spread the word on social with #defendnature

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