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Campaigns to change wildlife legislation in the UK

15th May 2017

Badger

Wildlife charities across the UK are fighting to protect native species. From the bumblebees to butterflies, badgers to hedgehogs, many of Britain’s once flourishing species are now struggling. Many charities and organisations are seeking to protect them by law.

Wildlife campaigners have expressed their fears over leaving the European Union, stating that the EU has spearheaded many of the laws which protect the UK environment and wildlife. In the run up to the EU referendum in June 2016, the Wildlife Trusts issued a statement to voice its concerns: “Most of the laws that protect our wildlife and environment are tied to our membership of the European Union. This includes our strongest protection for special wildlife sites and effective regulations on pollution of our seas and rivers. So leaving the European Union could have far-reaching implications for our wildlife and all the positive impacts a healthy natural environment has on our lives.

“But we British love our wildlife, and we could decide not just to keep the environmental protection that the EU has provided, but to go further and improve it.”

In this article, Law Absolute takes a look at recent campaigns to change UK wildlife legislation.

Ban on bee-harming pesticides

Bumblebee

A small victory for the nation’s wildlife came in the form of a temporary ban on neonicotinoids (neonics), which drastically harm insects such as bees and butterflies. A ban on using these dangerous pesticides on some crops was first introduced by the European commission in 2013, but the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) recently submitted an application to overturn the ban.

A campaign led by multiple wildlife organisations appealed to Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom to uphold the ban to protect the UK’s bees. The government rejected the NFU’s application and agreed to keep the ban in place temporarily. It would now be up to the European Commission to make further decisions, or, as many organisations fear, the fate of the legislation may depend on Britain leaving the EU.

According to Friends of the Earth, there is now a long list of scientific evidence showing the threat bees face from neonics: “Loss of habitat (since World War II the UK has lost 98% of its wildflower meadows), use of pesticides, spread of pests and diseases and, increasingly, climate change all contribute to this danger.” In a recent statement following the news of the neonics ban, the organisation said: “The UK has lost 20 species of bee since the 1900’s, and a further 35 are considered under threat. It’s great that we’re one step closer to saving bees by stopping neonics coming back to our fields, for now. But there’s still more to do.”

Martin Smith, spokesperson for the British Bee Keepers Association, expressed his concerns over the long-term plans for the use of pesticides: “The BBKA welcomes the recent decision not to allow the limited use of neonicotinoid pesticides in the UK during this summer’s planting season. However we remain concerned that the ultimate decision on their long term use which will be taken at a European-wide level, has been delayed until the autumn of this year.”

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which works with landowners and farmers to help them improve their land for bumblebees, stated that an emergency application for the use of bee-harming pesticides was granted in 2015. Darryl Cox, Science and Policy Officer at the charity, said: “The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) has a closed meeting in which they receive an application from organisations like the NFU and pesticide companies about why they think emergency applications of restricted pesticides are warranted. The committee of scientists weigh up the evidence and make a decision.

“Unfortunately in 2015 they felt the evidence was strong enough to warrant an emergency application in the areas suggested, but since then they have not agreed that any further emergency applications have been warranted.”

The Trust raises awareness about the importance of bees and focuses heavily on resolving the issue of habitat loss, which is one of the biggest causes of bee declines, according to Mr Cox. On the subject of the neonics ban, he added: “On the neonicotinoid front we will be revising our current policy during this year to reflect the more complex situation with Brexit, and we will continue to lend our support and advice to the LINK organisations which are pressing the government for environmental protection of at least the same standard if not better for when we leave the EU.

“Unfortunately, coming out of the single market does mean we will no longer have to adhere to the common rules which include the restrictions on pesticides so it will be in the hands of the UK government whether or not we see neonicotinoids back in the fields again.”

The European Food Safety Authority is also currently reviewing all scientific evidence available on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees, according to Mr Cox: “The results are expected on 30th November this year, along with a recommendation to the European Commission as to whether or not the ban should remain in place and whether not it should be extended to other no-flowering crops.”

Increasing legal protection for hedgehogs

Hedgehog

A petition to increase the protection offered to hedgehogs by law was launched by Olive Colvile, MP for Plymouth and Devonport, last year. The two main aims of the petition were to increase the legal protection for hedgehogs by putting them onto schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and to recognise and promote Hedgehog Street, a campaign run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

By including hedgehogs in schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it could mean that all building developers have a requirement to survey for hedgehogs before starting any work. If hedgehogs are found on a potential development plot, appropriate mitigation would be required by law.

Do hedgehogs currently have any legal protection?

Currently, hedgehogs have some legal protection in the UK. They are listed on schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) which makes it illegal to kill or capture wild hedgehogs, they are also listed under the Wild Mammals Protection Act (1996), which prohibits cruel treatment of hedgehogs. Under the NERC Act, hedgehogs are also listed as a species of ‘principal importance’. On the current legislation, Hedgehog Street said: “Crucially, none of this legislation is actually relevant to any of the key reasons for why hedgehogs are declining, and thus it has limited relevance for the conservation of wild hedgehog populations.”

While the initial discussion on this petition in parliament did not see hedgehogs added to schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it was acknowledged and plans were outlined to encourage greater protection of hedgehog habitats. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), made several claims in response to the petition as to why the species should not be added to schedule 5, including: “Protecting such a generalist habitat from destruction or disturbance could have the unintended consequence of making it a criminal offence to tend gardens” and “it may deter the maintenance and creation of habitat for hedgehogs if there will be a restriction on land use as a result”. DEFRA did, however, announce that it is developing an “ambitious” 25-year plan to protect and enhance the environment. Those in lawyer jobs should be aware that this particular campaign for greater legal protection for hedgehogs is ongoing.

Campaign to overturn DEFRA approval of multi-species trap

DEFRA recently approved the use of a multi-species trap which threatens the UK’s hedgehog population. The A24 trap, designed to kill rats, stoats and even hedgehogs in New Zealand, where hedgehogs are considered a pest, is widely opposed by wildlife organisations, including the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

As hedgehogs are listed as a protected species through the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the newly approved trap is incredibly controversial. A statement by the BHPS said: “Anyone setting traps for ‘vermin’ or non-protected species is obliged to take all reasonable precautions to avoid catching a protected species, since there are no ‘reasonable precautions’ to avoid catching hedgehogs using this trap, anyone who sets them is at risk of prosecution if they catch a hedgehog. It is no defence in law to say that the catch was unintentional.

“We call on DEFRA to withdraw approval of the use of these traps immediately so that they are not able to impact upon our already dwindling hedgehog population.”

BHPS launched a petition against DEFRA’s approval of the A24 trap and picked up almost 30,000 signatures in 6 weeks. However, due to Parliament being dissolved ahead of the snap general election in June, the charity was notified that the petition would close and must start from scratch.

Badger cull

UK badger

One of the most controversial and highly publicised wildlife legal battles is the badger cull. Introduced in late 2013, the cull was approved by the government to help tackle bovine TB, a disease found in cattle that can be spread by badgers. Campaigners argue that there is little evidence to suggest the cull will be effective and that it could wipe out local populations of badgers.

An initial trial of the cull took place in 2013 in areas with a high number of TB infections in cattle to determine whether badgers could be culled humanely, safely and effectively. The aim of the cull was to kill 70% of badgers across these areas. The apparent lack of scientific evidence to support the badger culls has caused much controversy among campaigners, as no scientific data was used by DEFRA to determine the success of the initial culls. While scientific evidence has shown that bovine TB can be transmitted from badgers to cattle and vice versa, it is not clear how large a role badgers play in the spread of the disease.

Badger expert Professor Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London told The Guardian: “There is no basis for drawing any conclusions about the effectiveness of culling.” The report suggested over 70% of badgers in an area must be killed to ensure that the disturbed remaining populations do not range more widely and spread the disease further. However the minimum targets set for badger kills in each area were changed during the culls depending on how many were being killed. Professor Woodroffe added: “This means that there is really no way to tell what reduction in badger numbers was achieved by these culls.”

The Badger Trust has  been working with campaigners and other organisations to ban the cull. After the announcement of the cull in 2013, over 300,000 members of the public responded in opposition. DEFRA appointed an Independent Expert Panel to assess the effectiveness of the culling method, which ruled the practice “ineffective and inhumane”. Despite this, the government has gone ahead with the cull in many counties across the UK.

According to the Badger Trust, approximately £50,000,000 of public funds has been spent on the cull. The charity also revealed 80% of culled badgers do not have bovine TB and only 5.7% of bovine TB outbreaks have been caused by badgers. The trust has instead proposed an effective vaccination strategy and testing of badgers to lower the amount of badgers carrying and spreading TB. The Badger Trust stated: “We firmly believe that a vaccination and testing strategy for badgers would have a much better effect and most of that 50 million could go towards and effective strategy against the main causes and transmission of bovine TB.

“It has already been shown in Wales that tighter control on cattle movements, regular and thorough testing has shown a drop of 30% in bovine TB incidents.”

Although there are many ongoing legal battles to protect UK wildlife, there have also been many successes. With the snap general election looming and Brexit negotiations pending, many wildlife charities and campaigners will be ready to fight to retain EU legislation.

Image credit: Milo Bostock