Many of our most special wild places are protected by European legislation. Here are just a few examples of wildlife and wild places that have benefited from this extra layer of environmental protection.

Dartmoor Special Area of Conservation (SAC)

About 2.8 million hectares of land are protected in the UK as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) - creating prosperous landscapes for wildlife and people

The internationally famous landscape of Dartmoor in Devon, England, is known for being wet and wild. Consisting of a patchwork of habitats, most notably a vast blanket peat bog, which as a result of historic activities became degraded. The moor was heavily grazed and regularly burnt to increase grass growth for livestock; this occurred alongside peat cutting , military and industrial use, which collectively changed the hydrology of the area, lowering the water table -often leading to erosion. Some of these practices have left bare peat scars in the landscape where, in some places, recovery will be slow to occur, but thanks to the designation of many SSSIs by the UK and of the entire area as a Special Area of Conservation by the EU (totalling over 23,000ha), this threatened landscape is beginning to recover. Dartmoor was protected as an SAC in 2005, largely due to the vast blanket bog habitats: these support a range of rare and vulnerable species, including the most southerly breeding population of Dunlin, but also bring huge benefits for people. 45% of the clean water delivered to customers of South West Water comes from sources in the blanket bogs of Dartmoor: a healthy bog system sends out cleaner water at the source, reducing the need for chemical cleaning systems, consequently keeping costs down for customers – bogs also hold back water in times of flood and slowly release water during drought. The healthy bog also stores 10 million tonnes of carbon – equivalent to the total emissions in a year from UK industry. The changes in management of the bog now helps keeps that carbon locked up, helping to mitigate against climate change. The designation of the SAC has supported more appropriate management systems being implemented and funding through agri-environment schemes has enabled landowners to make changes to their farming and grazing practices, as well as actively helping the land to recover.

Otters

EU legislation has supported the recovery of some of our most treasured wildlife

Otters are one of our most charismatic species, recognised as a huge part of both our cultural and environmental history. During the 20th century, however, it became clear that the otter population was in freefall across Europe, leading to extinctions across vast areas. By the mid-1970s, only a few pockets remained as strongholds. As well as hunting, persecution and habitat fragmentation, otters were heavily impacted upon by the degradation of rivers and waterways. Run-off from fields was bringing a high and concentrated dose of pesticides (notably organochlorines) into the rivers, leading to a huge decline in biodiversity: in 1957, the River Thames was declared biologically dead. The impacts up the food chain to top predators, such as otters, were huge. Toxic agricultural seed washes found their way into their preferred prey, notably eels, which then built up in the fat of these animals. Over time these pesticides made them weak and impacted upon their ability to breed. Work began on otter recovery in the 1970s, banning harmful pesticides, providing legal protection for the otter and improving water quality in rivers. From the 1990s onwards otter recovery has been marked, as the EU built on existing measures with designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs): 22 SACs have been designated under the Habitats Directive (1992) because of otters, with over 50 additional sites featuring otters as a qualifying reason for protection. This area totals over 175,000ha. Furthermore, the Water Framework Directive (2000) has led to the cleaning up of our most degraded river ecosystems. Whilst there is still a long way to go, the current presence of otters in every English county indicates that targeted recovery work and wider habitat protection is leading to a recovery of our UK rivers and the species that rely on them.

Bitterns

An EU LIFE-Nature project rescued the bittern from extinction in the UK – and created huge knock-on benefits for people too

The boom of a male bittern is one of the furthest-carryingsounds of any UK bird. But by 1997 there were just 11 booming males left, down from 80 in 1954. The cause of the decline was simple: a loss of the reedbed habitat which this small heron calls home. In 1996, as part of international efforts to restore wetlands, an EU LIFE-Nature project was set up to rescue the bittern from extinction, involving The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and others. Funds were made available for a strategic approach across Britain: to optimise habitat in eight EU-designated Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which already harboured the birds, and to prepare 11 more sites for recolonisation. By 2003 there were 40 booming males. Today there are around 80 once more, and 600 birds in total. Reedbeds are great for wildlife but also help to clean drinking water and provide traditional roofing materials. Long-term management plans at all project sites, and careful monitoring, ensure a successful legacy for these special, and useful, habitats. One of the restoration sites was the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Amwell Quarry nature reserve, a former quarry which is part of the EU -designated Lee Valley Special Protection Area. Its first bittern boomed in 2008, and numbers of wintering birds have increased too. More funding followed to improve access for people and today Amwell attracts 90,000 visitors each year.

Strangford Lough

Local and UK governments failed to protect the Lough’s ancient seabed habitats from destruction – until the EU obliged them to

Strangford lough is the UK’s largest sea lough. Its unusual range of habitats and outstanding beauty gives it huge economic, recreational and cultural value. But beneath the surface its natural features have been less appreciated. The Lough’s seabed is unusual for its living reefs, built by generations of horse mussels. Hundreds of other species live in these ancient reefs, forming the basis for the Lough’s economically vital wildlife, from tiny invertebrates up the food chain to the birds and seals that visitors come to see. The hydroids that live on the mussels provide somewhere for tiny scallop larvae to settle, which in turn supported the Lough’s scallop industry. Unfortunately the mussel reefs were badly damaged by scallop dredging. This involves dragging a weighted iron cage across the seabed and discarding everything except scallops, an effect similar to that of an underwater bulldozer. Between 1980 and 2003 Ulster Wildlife lobbied the local and UK government to regulate the trawling (as they were required to do by EU law), with no success. In 2003 Ulster Wildlife complained to the European Commission, which threatened to fine the UK government. A recovery plan was devised but only partly carried out. A second complaint in 2011 has produced a more robust plan and a Total Protection Zone. It is unlikely the reefs will ever recover.

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