Wildlife laws under threat: Habitats Regulations

Wildlife laws under threat: Habitats Regulations

With a second reading of the Retained EU Laws Bill expected soon, we're sharing a series of blogs about the laws and regulations designed to protect nature that are under threat. Today, Sue Young, Head of Land Use Planning at The Wildlife Trusts, shares her concerns about the threat to Habitat Regulations.

In the UK, we are fortunate enough to have an emerald network of stunning nature sites. These are places that provide a home for some of the world’s most vulnerable animals and plants, helping to ensure their survival.

These places are now all at risk of being damaged - and potentially destroyed - by development. Others look set to die a slow death as a result of pollution, or gradual deterioration from habitat degradation, if the laws that protect them are lost. A new Bill is going through parliament now, that, if passed by parliament, will cancel all existing laws that derive from European Law by the end of 2023. Amongst this huge amount of legislation are the strongest of our environmental protections – the Habitats Regulations. These laws require the UK Government to produce and maintain a list of the sites that support the rarest habitats and species, and which therefore must be protected. 

Known as Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, these sites make up the emerald network for the UK and include habitats such as ancient forests, moors, river valleys, heaths and marshes. They can be as small as a single pond or encompass entire estuaries and islands, but what they all have in common is the importance of the nature they support. In many cases their wildlife is rare and threatened - and in some cases, it may be a significant proportion of the global population. These sites are the jewels in the crown for the UK’s wildlife. 

Right now, the Habitats Regulations give these sites and the species that live in them the strongest possible protection from damage. Activities that could harm Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation must be rigorously assessed, and those that that would damage the sites are prohibited. In the most exceptional circumstances, if the need for development is so important that it overrides the need to protect these sites, then compensation habitat must be created to maintain the extent of the network and ensure the survival of species it supports.

How do the Habitats Regulations help?

The Thames Basin Heaths are a glorious area of wild countryside stretching across Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire. They were made a Special Protection Area in 2005 to help protect the populations of nightjar, woodlark and Dartford warbler that live there. These birds nest on the ground and are easily disturbed, especially by inquisitive dogs. The sites are enjoyed by millions of visitors but plans to build much needed housing in the area risked increasing the number of visitors and the level of disturbance that the birds would suffer. 

Because the heaths are a Special Protection Area, action had to be taken to ensure that building new housing would not have a damaging effect on their bird populations. Extra areas were provided so people could get out into places in the countryside where there wouldn’t be any impact on the birds. Wardens are on hand on the Special Protection Area during the breeding season to help look after the heathland sites. This ongoing protection of the Special Protection Area means that future residents of the heaths will be able to enjoy these amazing habitats and species for years to come.

Another example can be found at Tipner West; this site is part of the Special Protection Area of Portsmouth Harbour. Its intertidal mudflats, creeks and coastal grassland provide feeding grounds and shelter for internationally important populations of dark-bellied brent geese, dunlin and black-tailed godwits and other wading birds that spend the winter here. It has been under threat from development proposals, which would destroy more than 27 ha of the site. Campaigning by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and local people got the proposals revised, but poorly designed new plans continue to put the site at risk. It is only the strength of the Habitats Regulations protection that allows these proposals to be challenged on the basis that they do not represent a compelling enough reason to override the need to protect internationally important nature from harm.

Without the Habitats Regulations, the designation of such sites would be lost, and with it that level of protection. On land, most Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas have another protection: they are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), but the bar set for prioritising development over nature on SSSIs is lower and the legal requirement to compensate for damaging them would be gone.

Impact at sea, as well as on land

At sea, losing the Habitats Regulations would be a disaster. We don’t have SSSIs offshore, so if we were to lose the 116 marine Special Areas of Conservation and 125 marine Special Protection Areas we would be losing 64% of the current Marine Protected Areas network. Without this designation there is no hope of getting 30% of the marine environment protected and recovered by 2030. 

We are fighting to get these sites into a good condition; so many have already deteriorated from centuries of human activities, such as fishing, and we can only expect development pressure to increase. The UK Government has ambition for exponential growth of other industries at sea, particularly energy production. The expansion of offshore wind would require copious amounts of cables to bring electricity to land – enough to stretch from London to Cape Town to meet the target of 50GW by 2030 - plus plans to extract more oil and gas. If the protection of these special places is weakened, we will not be able to prevent the catastrophic loss of marine wildlife that results from the industrialisation of our seas. 

What does this look like at sea, in reality? 

Without the vital protection for our most precious areas for wildlife at sea, marine habitats that provide essential food sources for a diversity of species will be lost. We will see a reduction in our wonderful marine mammal species such as harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphins and minke whales. Many seabird species also are reliant on the sea for food such as kittiwakes, gannets, guillemots and puffins – and are also under huge pressure from avian influenza.  These combined impacts could result in massive population declines, or even extinction.   

Although it is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, the UK has been developing innovative solutions to nature’s recovery and the UK Government committed to international targets for nature's recovery across 30% of land and sea by 2030. This will be impossible to achieve without protecting the parts of the network we already have in place. 

We understand that, in the face of a nature and climate emergency, there is a need to review and strengthen environmental law. This should be a considered and participative process, not something rushed through without scrutiny. It is vital that the UK Government abandons its plans to revoke the Habitats Regulations in little over a year.

The outlook for our wildlife, both on land and at sea, is not looking too bright. That’s why we’re asking everyone who cares about the environment to contact their MP or councillor, asking them to do all they can to defend nature.