Over the last 40 years, the EU has been a key originator of environmental legislation affecting the UK. This is an overview of some of the main Directives which have helped to improve the UK's wildlife and environment.

A Directive is a type of European legislation that sets out a goal that all EU member states must achieve by a set deadline. Each individual country then devises their own laws on how to achieve this goal.

The Birds Directive (79/409/EEC), updated and amended in 2009 (2009/147/EC)

1979 Directive, implemented in UK through the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act

The Birds Directive put protection in place for all wild birds across the EU, with a focus on endangered and migratory species, and site protection (Special Protection Areas). There is strong evidence that most species on Annex 1 of the Birds Directive have benefited from improved conservation status in EU countries, as opposed to non-EU European countries where measures have not applied , .

“Sherwood Forest is important for nightjar and woodlark. The status of these species in the EU Birds Directive was crucial to us preventing the construction of an incinerator on a vital heathland restoration site in the heart of the Forest.” - Janice Bradley, Head of Conservation Policy & Planning, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust


The Habitats Directive (Directive 92/403/EEC)

1992 Directive, implemented in UK by 1994 Regulations (subsequently amended)

The Habitats Directive, together with the Birds Directive, forms the cornerstone of Europe's nature conservation policy, providing Special Areas of Conservation, thus protection, to over 1000 rare and endangered species and over 200 habitat types, as well as action to return them to favourable conservation status.

"In 1993, I'd just finished my PHD on lowland peatlands and I first set my eyes on Thorne and Hatfield Moors, Britain’s biggest bogs. I saw a horror scene of industrial-scale devastation: a smooth black surface of dried peat, studded with peaty dust-devils swirling across what I could only describe as the killing fields, and all for a bag of dirt to grow tomatoes. Designation as a Special Area of Conservation has seen the peat miners leave and wildlife return. Without EU intervention, the sites would have been lost and we would be immeasurably poorer as a result." - Rob Stoneman, Chief Executive, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

“Strangford Lough’s horse mussel reefs were in major decline but intervention from Europe has ensured that an appropriate restoration action plan has been put in place by the government of Northern Ireland.” - Jennifer Fulton, Chief Executive, Ulster Wildlife Trust


Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC)

2000 Directive, implemented in UK by 2003 Regulations.

This Directive protects rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters. It provides a joined-up approach for the water environment, based on a catchment-wide approach and a firm objective of good ecological status for all wetlands. Its introduction followed over 20 years of EU action on water quality and pollution control.


Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC), amended by Directive 98/15/EEC

1991 Directive, implemented in UK by 1994 Regulations.

This Directive was implemented in the UK in 1994, leading for the first time to direct action to clean up urban waste-water treatment. Untreated sewage discharges were halted and the pollution loads of industrial chemicals, which had previously been entering the urban sewerage networks, started to be comprehensively dealt with. It was this legislation more than any that dealt with the transformation of rivers like the Thames, Tees and Mersey, enabling native wildlife to return.

“When I first worked for Tees Valley Wildlife Trust, if you fell in the river then you’d be as worried about being poisoned as being drowned. It didn’t start improving until the EU Urban Waste Water Directive was implemented. A 1980s NRA trawl survey found just one fish in the Billingham Reach of the Tees, and that was a diseased flounder; by 2000 there were cormorants and seals feeding on migrating salmon and sea trout in this stretch." - Jeremy Garside, Chief Executive, Tees Valley Wildlife Trust


Air Quality Framework Directive (2008/50/EC)

2008 Directive, implemented in UK by 2010 Regulations –this was the latest step in effective series of European Directives tackling air-borne pollution, starting with Directive 80/779/EEC (1980).

The UK was Europe’s biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide gas, resulting in acid rain and severe, associated environmental impacts. Progress has taken a long time – with urban air pollution levels still in breach of EU standards in some of Britain’s cities – an enormous change has happened. The dramatic reductions in most pollutants are especially striking given the growth of UK population and economy over the same period. Whilst the remaining levels of these pollutants are still affecting some habitats, the situation is so much better than it could have been.


Bathing Waters Directive (76/160/EEC), revised as Directive 2006/7/EC

1975 Directive, implemented in UK by 1978.

It is easy to forget that Europe’s shores were once widely blighted by raw sewage, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. By putting a halt to the discharge of raw sewage, this Directive was a vital historic step towards cleaner and more natural waters across Europe.


Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC)

2008 Directive, implemented in the UK by 2010 Regulations.

This Directive has an objective of Good Environmental Status for our seas, recognising the importance of an ecosystem approach to marine biodiversity alongside social and economic objectives for the sea.


Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (2014/89/EU)

2014 Directive, to be implemented in the UK by 2016.

This Directive requires a robust process of maritime planning for all activity in the seas, which becomes ever more important as our seas are increasingly looked at as a source of new economic opportunities.


The Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (85/337/EEC), as amended subsequently (Directives of 1997, 2003 & 2009) and codified by Directive 2011/92/EU and amended again by Directive 2014/52/EU

1985 Directive, implemented in UK by 1988 Regulations.

Environmental impact assessment has been crucial to reducing the impacts of built development on wildlife. The Directive made an Environmental Impact Assessment mandatory for major development, or any development proposed for sensitive locations, ensuring that any potential impacts on wildlife were identified so they could be taken into account.


Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (2001/42/EC)

2001 Directive, implemented in UK by 2004 Regulations.

In the past, destruction of wildlife habitat had been predetermined by major policy decisions on ‘plans’ or ‘programmes’ long before specific planning applications came forward for Environmental Impact Assessment. The Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive has helped ensure that plans and programmes are formulated with proper consideration to their environmental effect, making it significantly more likely that impacts on wildlife can be avoided.