The UK is leaving the EU, so what does that mean for the beasts of Britain? Two weeks after the monumental decision was made, Love Nature attempts to make some sense of what the future might hold
Amid all the acrimony, arm flailing and desperate wailing that has followed the British people’s controversial decision to leave the European Union, it’s important not to overlook the impact a withdrawal from the EU could have on the vulnerable UK residents who had no voice in the vote: the country’s animals.
During the course of six decades, the EU (and, albeit less so, its predecessor the EEC) has evolved a series of laws that offer British animals, domesticated and wild, an extra layer of legal protection from mistreatment and destructive industrial and agricultural practices. If and when Brexit is actually implemented, these laws are among the tens of thousands of straws that comprise an intricate legislative haystack, which will need to be picked apart and then put back together again.
No matter how objectively you look at it, this promises to be a pretty painful and laborious experience. And, with multiple laws about to be rewritten and treaties torn up, it will also undeniably demand extra vigilance from people who care deeply about such things, to ensure that environmental safeguards, rules around ethical treatment of animals and legislation designed to protect the continent’s most fragile species aren’t all trampled upon or sidelined in the process.
In the build up to the referendum, whilst ostensibly staying diplomatically neutral in their language, major charities and NGOs were heavily hinting at the challenges that lay ahead should the Leave side prevail. Now their fears have apparently been realised, they know they have years of heavy lifting ahead of them, so they’re going to need generous and consistent support.
On the upside, British people, in general, are known for their opposition to and revulsion for wanton cruelty. The population of this idiosyncratic island is famous for its cultural compassion for creatures great and small, and the UK’s reputation as a nation of animal lovers is well earned.
Although the oft-quoted stat that Brits donate and bequeath more money to animal causes than they do to cancer and kids’ charities is actually a complete myth, a whopping wad of cash does annually get handed over to organisations championing the welfare of wildlife, livestock, pets and the natural environment.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), for example, is typically the third biggest beneficiary of bequeathed ‘legacy’ donations in the country, after Cancer Research UK and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, with sums approaching £100 million.
How long this will continue to be the case, however, is now very much in doubt. Controversial fund-raising techniques placed the whole charity sector under intense scrutiny in 2015, and if, as multiple experts have forecast, the UK now enters a sustained period of economic slow down and contraction in the wake of Brexit, very possibly tipping into a full-blown recession, then history tells us that charitable donations will inevitably go down across the board. The combination of these two factors will mean much less money will be available in the war chest to fight both human and animal focused causes.
However probable, this still remains speculative, of course. The country is still in shock at the moment; the cards have been tossed right up in the air, and no one is quite sure what way they are going to land or how people and markets will react when they do, so let’s return to the legal issues.
Historically, the stand-alone version of Britain has a pretty impressive pedigree when it comes to protecting animals with legislation. The United Kingdom was the first country on Earth (let alone within Europe) to introduce laws specifically aimed at improving the comfort of livestock, for example, starting with the 1822 Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle.
In more recent years, though, Brussels has set the tone on such issues, sometimes in the face of opposition from the UK. For example, in 2013, the EU banned three neonicotinoid pesticides that were devastating bee populations across the continent, but the UK campaigned and voted against the ban, and the country’s farming minister, George Eustice, a leading Brexit campaigner, has said the UK will develop a more ‘flexible approach’ to environmental protection, once free of ‘spirit-crushing’ Brussels directives. Predicted score: Bees 0, Brexit 1. But if this happens it would be hard not to see it as an own goal for the country, with bees and other pollinating animals being vital to the effective functioning of the food chain and the healthy proliferation of wild flora.
The EU has also passed numerous key welfare laws around the keeping of pigs and chickens in intensive situations, an area of farming that exploded into a massive industry with the beginning of factory farming after the end of WWII. The use of barren cages for battery hens was banned in member states in 2012, and sow stalls (in which pigs are kept in conditions where they’re unable to move for almost their entire lives) were outlawed across the Union in 2013.
Will such restrictions be maintained in a post Brexit Britain? Possibly, but they won’t be enshrined in longstanding, overarching cross-border laws. Instead, such protection will depend on the policies of whoever is occupying Number 10 at any given time, and will now be subject to potential change every 4 to 5 years, as the voting public goes to the ballots.
Even before the referendum, the Conservative government in the UK attempted to lurch towards deregulating the industry rather than subjecting it to scrutiny over ethical standards, starting with a proposal to let the poultry business self-regulate certain areas. The move, which prompted public outcry and was strongly opposed by the RSPCA and other groups, was subsequently shelved, but it underlined how animal welfare pressure groups will need to be prepared to fight their ground in a new political environment with less recourse to a higher legal authority.
It is possible, of course, that new, more stringent laws about ethical treatment of animals could be introduced. However, these would only be guaranteed to last as long as the government that enacted them stayed in power—a bit like the now-precarious ban on fox hunting, which is once again up for debate as one of the contenders for the country’s top job has placed it at the heart of her election campaign in order to appeal to the blood-sport supporting element of her party.
So, what of wildlife, including migratory birds who have little regard for national borders at the best of times? A large percentage of birds in the UK are temporary visitors rather than permanent residents. A vast variety of species—including whinchats, warblers, wheatears, cuckoos, swifts, nightjars, martins, redstarts, nightingales, wagtails, tree pipits, turtle doves, hobbies, ospreys, terns, shearwaters, puffins and gannets—have enjoyed freedom of movement around Europe for millennia, arriving from the continent and further afield by the thousand. There’s little UKIP or anyone else can do to stop that, but will they face more challenging conditions as a result of the referendum?
Again, with the level of political uncertainty that prevails at present, it’s too early to give a definitive answer on that, and we can only report on the main indicators—most of which seem to suggest tough times ahead and a need for vigilance amongst committed conservationists (who, fortunately, seem less splintered on key issues than conservatives).
Besides being a free market and an economic union, the EU encouraged countries to pool scientific and financial resources into joint efforts to safeguard fragile environments. According to Environmentalists for Europe, a huge amount of legislation—more than 100 laws— has been enacted to this end, covering a range of things, from pollution prevention through to protecting the habitats of rare birds.
It’s widely accepted that, because of these laws, British beaches and rivers are now cleaner and more full of life than they have been for many decades. It’s a far cry from the dark days when the country had an infamous and unenviable reputation as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’, with unregulated industries pumping out terrible levels of acid rain–causing sulphur dioxide and the nation’s waterways ran rancid with untreated sewage, which subsequently washed up along the coastline, impacting on wildlife and human health alike.
But these important pieces of legislation are the laws that pro Leave campaigners have attacked and described as rigid and ‘spirit crushing’.
‘The birds and habitats directives would go,’ pro Brexit Farming minister George Eustice promised prior to the referendum, claiming that this would give the government a £2 billion green dividend that could be spent on insurance schemes and incentives for farmers.
However, Erik Solheim, the newly installed Executive Director of the United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP), has appealed to the eventual leaders of post-Brexit Britain to drop the combative tone of the pre-referendum campaign, and to continue to work with the EU on environment policy, maintaining its nature directives and adhering to key climate laws for the common good.
Solheim told The Guardian that problems such as pollution and wildlife crime crossed borders, and therefore it was vital that supranational decisions continued to be made—something he claimed was still possible post Brexit, despite the pre-vote sabre rattling.
‘Environmental issues need to be framed in a way that is much closer to people’s hearts and cannot be abstracted,’ said Solheim, after analysing the drivers and the potential affects of Brexit. ‘Pollution is an issue that is affecting you, your children and the planet in the here and now.’
‘The UK can relate to the EU’s climate decisions and be covered by them, just as Norway and Switzerland are. Norway brought its emissions into the Emissions Trading System and adopted nearly all of the EU’s environmental law. You can coordinate closely with the EU even if you’re outside it.’
‘It is very, very important to defend these regional environmental mechanisms as there is no way we can protect migratory animals like birds in just one habitat. You need global or regional agreements and I’m absolutely confident that the UK will remain committed to this, whatever happens.’
Whether Brexit Britain, if it indeed comes to pass, will be in the mood to listen to the likes of Solheim is yet to be seen. We still don’t know who will be leading the country and making the laws, but whoever it is will have to perform quite the dance to keep everyone happy amid the cacophony of a new political reality taking to the stage. And environmentalists and wildlife lovers will need to be on song and ready to join in if their concerns are to be heard.
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