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Maintain UK nature laws or risk losing our iconic wildlife: warning as key nature talks at COP15 approach second week

12 December 2022

  • Some of our most treasured species from otters and puffins to butterflies and orchids risk having their best protections removed due to powers given within the Retained EU Law Bill
  • The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill puts 1,100 environmental laws (as well as protections in other areas including workers rights) at risk by enabling Ministers without proper Parliamentary scrutiny, to revoke or amend
  • Ahead of COP15 Government is being urged by nature experts to prevent gaps in law causing a devastating impact for beloved British wildlife

At COP15 the UK must work with other world leaders to set ambitious 2030 goals for the recovery of species and habitats - including goals to stop extinctions, and to preserve and restore the quality and quantity of habitats

Environmental groups are concerned that iconic UK wildlife species risk losing their main protections as retained EU laws on wildlife are at substantial risk of being scrapped or amended. [1] Many of these species are already struggling with further loss of habitats, and their plight could be made even worse if stronger EU-derived protections give way to weaker UK ones. [2] The Retained EU Law Bill, currently making its way through the House of Commons, could see hundreds of environmental protections ditched or weakened. [3] Nature groups are calling for this incredibly damaging bill to be withdrawn.

Some of our much-loved species covered by retained EU laws include otters, hazel dormice, bottlenose dolphins, and lady’s slipper orchid – Britain’s rarest wildflower. [4] These species are currently protected from acts to deliberately kill, injure, disturb or capture them, as well as destruction or damage to their breeding sites and resting places. Removing these protections could also spell disaster for the UK’s bats, which could face losing even more of their homes if damaging development projects are allowed to go ahead. Weakening retained EU protections could also undermine the recent recovery of our otter populations, which suffered due to river pollution. This pollution could worsen if water quality protections are also weakened.

These protections also cover hundreds of important nature sites including Lundy (home to puffins) and Breckland (home to curlews). If these sites lose or have their protection weakened, it will leave countless more species at risk from damaging development. [5]

Campaigners are warning the Government that weakening protection for species in the UK would undermine legal commitments to halt the decline of nature by 2030 and could derail the UK’s credibility as an international environmental leader at COP15 in Montreal and beyond. Upcoming events like COP15 provide an unrivalled opportunity for the UK government to increase their ambition on nature recovery, and importantly commit to keeping or boosting protections for species - being the world leaders on nature it claims to be.

This would follow already concerning signs of Government failures on nature:

  • Green groups recently submitted a complaint over the missed legal deadline for setting new Environment Act targets
  • Analysis has shown the Government is making no appreciable progress on meeting its pledge to effectively protect 30% of UK land and sea for nature by 2030
  • National Parks are facing huge funding cuts which could damage nature and landscapes, and further set back pledges on protecting land for nature
  • Species abundance targets are currently expected to allow decline until 2030 followed by a slow recovery on 2030 levels to 2042, which means that in 20 years time England will have less wildlife than it has today.

Alex Sobel, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Nature, Recovery and Domestic Environment said: “The Government has chosen to undermine vital regulations that protect the wildlife we cherish, by rushing through a Bill. We will be left with fewer wild animals and plants in our communities, less natural beauty, and a less healthy environment for future generations.’’

“The next Labour Government will work to protect biodiversity. We look forward to the opportunity to engage in serious discussions at COP15 on nature-positive action for the benefit of all people and the planet."

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:
“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.

“As the UK prepares to send delegates to Montreal for crucial nature talks at COP15 the Government should be taking decisive domestic action to stand up for nature. Instead, this bill puts protection for UK species and habitats at the greatest risk for decades.”

Read additional quotes from Bat Conservation Trust, RSPB, Plantlife and PAN UK here

Some of the iconic species threatened by deregulation.

Species UK Conservation status Current protection Threats
Direct protection under Habitats Regulations from retained EU laws
Bats (all species)
Varies between species, with four UK bats at risk of extinction. Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act Removal or amendment of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 by powers given to Ministers in the Retained EU Law Bill could leave bats open to death or injury and their roosts and habitats open to destruction. Building work, new road projects and other development can impact bats, their roost sites, and their ability to travel through the landscapes to feed. More here

Weakened protections could see many more bats and their roosts damaged or destroyed.
Marsh Fritillary
Declined in distribution by 43% since 1985 Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act Habitat loss and inappropriate management (predominantly marshy or chalk grassland) is the main cause in decline.

Again the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations protect these butterflies and their habitats from damage. Increased development with weaker environmental requirements could lead to more loss of vital habitat.
Dolphins, porpoises, whales (all species) Some species are more abundant than others, though the West Coast Orca community is thought to have less than ten individuals. Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act Bycatch and ocean pollution – plastic and chemical, as well as noise caused by activity such as exploration for oil and gas are causing whale loss.

Loss of or weakening to the Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 would remove the requirement for UK Governments to implement plans to protect our ocean and vulnerable sea life.
Hazel dormouse
Vulnerable to extinction in UK. Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act Loss of ancient woodland understory, scrubby habitats and hedgerows, reduces the available habitat dormice rely on for homes.

Dormice are protected by Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, so there is a requirement to avoid destroying their habitat or mitigate where unavoidable. Removing or weakening these requirements would increase the loss of this species which is already declining at an unsustainable rate.
Natterjack toad
Only found at a handful of sites in southeast England, northwest England, East Anglia, North Wales and parts of Scotland. Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act Loss of habitat - coastal sand dune systems, coastal grazing marshes and sandy heaths.

The loss or weakening of Marine Strategy Regulations could lead to the last remaining habitats for Natterjack toads being destroyed.

Common otter
A rare but widespread species, now found throughout the country but absent from parts of central and southern England, the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scilly and the Channel Islands. Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act Road traffic accidents; drowning in fish and lobster traps; and pollution such as oil all harm otters.

Retained EU Laws include the water quality regulations – and removal or weakening of these protections could end strict standards for rivers and streams, guarding against pollution and over-abstraction.
Lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)
Only found at a handful of sites in Britain. Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act Lady’s-slipper orchid is protected against possession and transport (alive or dead) by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, so losing or weakening these retained EU law could open up the rare flower to collection and theft.
Fen orchid
Endangered Protected by the European Habitats and Species Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act The species is dependent on the unique, open conditions of fenland and has declined due to habitat loss as a result of wetland being reclaimed for agricultural use or fens being allowed to “scrub over” and slowly revert to woodland.

Rolling back of ambition for nature-friendly farming reforms could lead to more fenland being turned into intensive farmland.
Species indirectly protected by Habitats Directive from retained EU laws due to living within protected areas

Amber listed due to the international importance of both breeding and wintering populations in the UK, its unfavourable conservation status in Europe and the declines in UK breeding numbers. Indirect protection with Breckland SPA in Norfolk and Suffolk Agricultural intensification of upland farmland and moorland has reduced curlew habitat. More hereCurlews are partially protected due to the Conservation of Species and Habitats Regulations providing safe havens for them which if removed or weakened could leave their habitats more vulnerable to unsustainable development.
The puffin is included on the Red list of UK Birds of Conservation Concern after being listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Indirect protection in Lundy SPA Disruption of food sources (small fish), predation from rat, mink, and cats introduced to breeding colonies. 

Pollution from oil can also be a serious hazards to puffins. Oil leaked from the Torrey Canyon in 1967 killed 85 per cent of the French puffins. Because of their low reproductive rate, puffins can take decades to recover from this kind of incident.

Puffins are also partially protected due to the Conservation of Species and Habitats Regulations providing safe havens for them – including Lundy. Their reliance on marine health also puts them at risk if the Marine Strategy Regulations are removed or weakened.

Banner image: ©Chris Gomersall

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