Yesterday, the Chancellor announced that he was seeking to review the way in which EU Directives on Birds and Habitats are enforced in this country. Apparently, the protections that these afford to our natural habitats are an intolerable burden on economic development, and need to be watered-down, so that development becomes easier. Along with that, organisations previously charged with protecting our habitats and environments (Natural England and Environment Agency) have been charged with promoting “sustainable” development instead.
But these Directives have already been subject to review, with the conclusion that we do not “gold plate” their implementation in the UK. These Directives provide the strongest possible protection to wildlife in the UK, and apply to habitats and species of Europe-wide importance. But the vast majority of sites of great value to wildlife in the UK do not contain species of Europe-wide, or even national importance. They are simply important for what they are – habitats in which wildlife can thrive and grow and be nurtured. National Parks, SSSI’s, AONB’s – all have imperfect protection, for it is still possible to develop in these areas if the benefits outweigh the environmental costs. But even these do not embrace most of the wildlife sites in the UK, many of which are completely un-protected, or carry the lowest level of protection, Local Wildlife Site. Alvecote Wood is a Local Wildlife Site. Stripping away protection in favour of development means that some of our most important habitats and coastlines can be built upon, made easier by stripping Natural England and the Environment Agency of their regulatory powers and placing the obligation to promote development upon them.
What is of more concern is that this watering-down of protection will cascade down the protection heirarchy and result in almost un-restrained development. Local Authorities can, and many will, do all they can to designate important areas and exclude these from their development plans. However national infrastructure projects can simply ignore these plans. Some ancient woodlands are already in the way of road-building projects announced this week. No longer can these be held up by important habitats, or by bat-roosts, great crested newt colonies or islands of species that should not be rare, but are, desperately clinging on to their ever-shrinking sanctuaries that are now “in the way” of economic development.
The fact is that the land to which wildlife sanctuaries cling is often the cheapest land – that is why wildlife, pushed out and marginalised, is allowed to remain on this land, because it is of low value. Protected status is all that prevents much of this land from the bulldozer. Now that protection is to be reduced, so that developers can build on cheap land and increase profit margins.
What is even more frightening is that so few people actually care. They may be a bit sad when a loved piece of scrub land is turned into a car park, or supermarket, or affordable housing. They may wonder why there are no longer any sparrows to visit their bird feeders. They may reminisce about how there were more butterflies when they were children. But ultimately, they don’t really care.
But they should care. This geological era is known as the anthropocene, the era of humans. We are extinguishing species at an alarming rate – globally and in the UK. All life depends on the rich web of species on our planet. We are part of that web, we do not control it. Fail to look after our beetles, worms, amphipods, crustacea, fungi, amphibia, and the feathery and furries that attract so much attention, and it is ultimately us, and our precious economy, that will suffer. If we keep thinking that supermarkets, executive housing, roads, airports, marinas and industrial estates are worth more than a few newts, or bats, or beetles, or bees, and we will one day wake up to find that we can no longer feed ourselves because all the pollinators have gone, and with them our ability to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, make medicines, purify water and all the other things that nature does for us and goes completely un-valued. Ignore our wildlife and we won’t have an economy, because we will have destroyed the foundation upon which it is based.
Meanwhile, we will take care of the little butterflies, and try and keep the big corporations at bay.