Wildlife does not heed national boundaries. EU funding, legislation and partnerships have led to benefits for our wildlife and ecosystems that a standalone UK could not have initiated. Britain’s membership of the European Union is often tabled as a threat to our sovereignty and freedom when in fact it has protected us from damaging policy decisions made by our own government. What has the EU ever done to help British wildlife? We must look back into the distant past to understand
The making of a great divide
Consider the landscape of some 40,000 years ago: glaciers sat north of London, covering the whole of northern Europe. Scotland, Scandinavia, the Baltic States all locked in ice. But the earth was going through a period of global warming that allowed a new species to spread into the landscape we know today as Europe. This species had complex social structures and big brains, had learned how to clear trees, build fire and to cook food. That species was us, Homo sapiens. Our stepping stone societies had made it out of Africa and across Siberia. Fast forward to 12,000 years ago and these first Europeans had found themselves in a landscape that was changing in ways they had never known. Their world, Europe, warmed, the glaciers retreated north, carving valleys, exposing unimaginably old rock formations, rearing up chalk and baring limestone, flooding the deepest lying valleys and trenches. But it was not just people who crossed this new landscape, wolves (the greatest of terrestrial travellers), lynx, bison, elk and deer all migrated across land opening and warming, leafing and flowering in a way it had not for over 100,000 years.
By 8,500 years ago the trenches and gullies that once will have seemed so high, so insurmountable to our ancestors, were submerged by what we now know as the Baltic, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic and most significantly in this case, the English Channel. Those animals (and I include Homo sapiens, of course) that did not cross in time, and that did not have wings with which to fly, were confined to Europe. The European ice sheets had melted and a critical divide had been made: Britain and Europe. For the next 8,000 years there were human attempts at passage and colonisation from Europe, and from Britain to Ireland and the now habitable Scottish isles. Some of these incursions are well known: the Roman invasion (43AD), the Vikings (9th century) and the Normans (11th century). There are some not so well known, like the early boats made from oak, chestnut and ash that will have capsized in their hundreds, their passengers never registered in history. On the shores today, many settled in their cities, towns and villages trumpet their near permanent roots in England, ignorant of the truth: the first Brits originated in Africa, arriving on foot via Russia 40,000 years ago. Further to this, we all depend on a system of food production developed by our ancestors in the Middle East. We are all the children of migration.
The French connection
Ironically, British habitats are not so rich because of our separation from continental Europe both climatically and physically. On a landscape scale, take England’s chalk grasslands, a rare habitat home to species that have evolved in grasslands that pre-date the English Channel. At the tip of Kent, survey the fauna and flora of a chalky valley then catch a ferry across the water and see it equalled where it still exists. In Kent it’s called the Continental Southern Element, a place where plants like man orchid (above), pyramidal orchid, field eryngo, meadow clary and autumn lady’s tresses can be found, wildflowers that spread from southern Europe before the great flood some 8,500 years ago. Britain’s habitats are unique because we are an island. We have chalk grassland, ancient woodland, coastal dunes, freshwater lakes and river networks, saltmarsh, heather moorland, peat bog and mountain ranges. We have many of the habitats found across Europe, all encircled by one shoreline.
Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions. All of these problems are recognised by the European Union
A visit to many of Europe’s towns, cities and wild places, the encountering of common species that we call British, reminds us of our simple and close connections. A percentage of the beloved blackbirds and robins you see in your garden each winter are of Scandinavian stock, the Vikings of the bird world. The nightingales so loved by English literature, the swallows and swifts we welcome ‘home’ in spring, each are African birds, stopping off in Europe on their way to the UK. Each species is known to distant cultures and people who also feel a connection with their joyful freedom and music when we see them depart.
But our wildlife is in decline, our sparser diversity of species growing poorer. Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions, and even our own habitat, our cities, is poisoned by air pollution that stunts the lung development of our children, leads to mental ill-health, heart disease and shortens the lives of us all. And yet all of these problems are recognised by the European Union and our membership pressures our political leaders to act upon them. Bats are protected species, as are badgers, water voles and the great crested newt thanks to the Bonn and Bern Conventions. In England it is our very own government that ignores the protection of badgers. Our birds are supported by the Birds and Habitats Directives, our rivers now improved thanks to support from the Water Framework Directives. I have volunteered on projects and received training in invasive species control thanks to EU funding so to me and my local area the benefit is tangible. On some of the most crucial issues regarding our collective wellbeing, the EU has stood up against our government to do what is right morally (and ecologically) for British people. Even Chancellor George Osborne wants Britain in the EU, someone who considers environmental protections like the habitats directives ‘red tape’ holding back economic growth.
Europeans working together for nature
It is true that the EU is not perfect. The spread of agricultural intensification into areas of traditionally-farmed landscapes of southern and eastern Europe will accelerate the ecological breakdown already seen in England’s rural landscape. The owl-rich farms of Serbia, the meadows of Hungary and Romania will be degraded and reduced to a shadow of their species diversity if they ever fall prey to agricultural ‘improvement’. This will mean more pesticides and a disconnection between people and the land. Once gone, these traditionally-managed landscapes are hard to bring back. Their stewards might well have packed up and headed for the city by then. Strangely, in Britain our wildlife is better protected from agricultural intensification by EU membership. When considering the role the European powers have in protecting our environment, the case of declining pollinators like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects is worth noting.
In March 2013 the EU proposed a ban on systemic pesticides, otherwise known as neonicotinoids. This at first failed to achieve a majority of support and the ban could not be implemented. Why was a ban being proposed? Neonicotinoids were linked to declines in honey bee and other wild insect populations. This is because many agricultural plants are now grown from seeds which are laced with neonicotinoid pesticides. This means that the entire plant is toxic. When these plants grow and their remains fall into the soil the toxicity lives on, contaminating local water bodies and river networks. This toxicity is also linked to a decline in farmland birds in Europe. It’s a decline which is shared at home. One month later, in April 2013, the motion was tabled once more at appeal and the UK switched its vote from abstention to objection, but enough nations voted in favour and the hung vote was taken up and implemented by the European commission. In this instance, we require the EU member states to protect our wildlife and wellbeing from the vagaries of our own government. We also have the chance to influence policy in Europe, a continent which has far greater biodiversity than we. We should take heart from the fact that the European commission has taken action on the Polish government’s unscientific clear felling of the Białowieża Forest, Europe’s largest ancient, lowland woodland.
Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at its very heart
In my mid-20s I was lucky enough to attend an EU funded placement volunteering in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. I saw then what EU money could do: support for local conservation projects that allow people, in this case shepherds, to contribute to the conservation of the lammergaier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), a species that like so many does not heed national boundaries. This project with the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture was one of many EU funded projects supported by EuCAN, a Community Interest Company based in Dorset, England. There are partner projects in Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Serbia, Romania and Hungary that have benefited from the support of EuCAN and its EU funded teams of volunteers. In July 2013 I visited South Moravia in the Czech Republic to meet people I now consider friends, all of whom are working to encourage a kinship between people and nature, riches of which the English can but dream. In April 2015 I travelled by train to Romania to meet Barbara Knowles, who very sadly passed away in 2016. Barbara’s project, Treasures of Transylvania, works to promote traditional land management in order to sustain some of the richest habitats Europe has. Prince Charles has travelled to Romania to offer his support for the project. Barbara worked alongside Pogany Havas, a local initiative to support the same goals.
Britain and Europe’s wildlife needs us
The truth is that without EU membership British organisations like EuCAN are even less likely to be able to receive funding and the alliance of EU-wide conservation is threatened with critical impairment. Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at the very heart of conservation. In England there is an unspoken rivalry between conservation groups (all of whom, it would seem, support EU membership, with 6% of the Wildlife Trusts’ income garnered from the EU and David Cameron’s RSPB endorsement of what the EU does for wildlife) but organisations like EuCAN and the Barbara Knowles Fund show that we all share a common aim and understanding on a local level, whatever our nationality: our ecosystems are suffering because of human impacts, people are becoming disconnected from the landscape and we need to do something about that, together. The impacts of human populations and industry are not going to go away and so we have to accept there will be change and find a way to influence it.
It can’t be denied that the European Union’s impact on nature is not all good, but that is the nature of the world we live in today, be it Britain, Europe or the Americas. Remember that it was the EU that enforced a bee-killing pesticides ban, that it is EU legislation which protects our wildlife and rivers, that funds so many of these local initiatives that connect people and nature. In Britain it is by being a part of this discussion that we as individuals can speak to our political representatives to make a case for a better union for nature. If Britain leaves the EU, we lose that power and our wildlife loses a lifeline. The British connection to Europe is clear in the history of our culture, landscape and wildlife. We are all Europeans, however far back our English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish heritage may take us. My grandparents and great grandparents lived in a time when European nations were at war, when millions of people were dying in wars fought over European borders. We now live in an age where Holland and Belgium trade land to clarify their borders without the hint of bloodshed, simply the ruffle of papers and the clatter of a computer keyboard. Today we reach out to each other, across the Channel to recognise the need to preserve our wildlife and local traditions that maintain Europe’s diverse habitats. The EU has supported and will support this. In conservation we have a common European goal, we should cherish that.