My colleague Alistair Taylor our Senior Policy Officer, (Nature Directives) reports on a significant visit to our Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project.

The EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives play an important role in protecting our wildlife, much of which is shared with our EU neighbours.

Regular readers of this blog will know that these Directives have been the subject of a Fitness Check over the past 18 months, with the results of this process now overdue, and eagerly anticipated by civil society, businesses, and governments alike across the EU.

One Member State with a particular interest in the final outcome is the Netherlands, which currently holds the presidency of the EU. In a guest blog in November last year, Kate Jennings reported that the Dutch Government had been calling for greater ‘flexibility’ in the application of these laws, widely interpreted as implying a revision and weakening of these key nature conservation laws.

In December last year (see here), Environment Ministers from all 28 Member States, including the Netherlands and our own Minister, Rory Stewart MP, said they wanted to focus their efforts on improving implementation of EU nature laws to give us a chance of halting the loss of biodiversity, rather than revising these key laws.

With a view to making this happen at national level, the Dutch House of Representatives has appointed two Members of Parliament, Mr Rudmer Heerema from the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD and Mr Henk Leenders the Dutch Labour Party, PvdA, as rapporteurs of the ‘fitness check’ of the Birds and Habitat Directives. In that capacity they are investigating how different EU-countries are now dealing with the combination of economic and ecological interests in nature areas.

They contacted RSPB after reading an article in BBC Wildlife of December 2015 featuring the Wallasea Island Wild Coast project, asking if they could visit Essex and talk to local stakeholders with both a nature conservation and business perspective.

So on Friday last week my colleagues Jeff Kew, Area Operations Manager for Eastern England, Chris Tyas, Wallasea Island Project Manager and I, welcomed Mr Henk Leenders and Mr Rudmer Heerema to Wallasea Island on a grey windswept June day.

Wallasea Island - aerial view of the restoration project bring life back to the Essex coast. Photocredit

The Wallasea Island Wild Coast project is an impressive example of what can be achieved for nature, and demonstrates how businesses, conservationists and local people can work together to deliver win-win solutions for all. Regular readers will remember that in September last year European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella and Biodiversity Minister Rory Stewart helped us to celebrate the completion of the first-phase of this project to safeguard local wildlife and communities from rising sea levels while helping to provide habitat for climate colonisers such as black-winged stilt.

Rising sea levels are of course a major concern for the Netherlands, much of which is below sea level, so the importance of the Wallasea project for flood management in the surrounding estuary was of interest to our visitors, as well as finding out more about how the UK implements the Nature Directives on the ground.

Wallasea island is, itself, not designated under either the Birds Directive or Habitats Directive as a protected Natura 2000 site, but it is crucial to the Crouch and Roach Estuaries Special Protection Area, designated under the Birds Directive for its populations of dark-bellied brent goose Branta bernicla bernicla. So compliance with the Nature Directives has been a key element of this project.

One of the first things our Dutch visitors were struck by was the scale of Wallasea. At 670 hectares Wallasea is twice the size of the city of London, and is the largest coastal habitat creation project of its kind in Europe. Three million tonnes of soil from the Crossrail project have been used to raise the level of Wallasea, and create landscape features that will offer habitats for birds, reptiles and other species.

What also impressed them was that this scale of operation had not been prevented or held back by nature protection laws. Impacts on the protected estuary habitats had been avoided or minimised where possible, and there had been full recognition from the beginning that the project would have significant positive impacts for these habitats in the long term. Indeed Wallasea is one of the case study projects included in evidence submitted to the Fitness Check of the Nature Directives by the UK’s Joint LINKs, as mentioned here and available here.

After a tour of the site, Rudmer and Henk met with several local stakeholders involved in the project, including a local land agent involved in selling and managing agricultural land in the area, a Director from Rochford District Council, the Chair of Canewdon Parish Council, the owner of a local oyster fishing business, and the Chairman of Maldon District Council, who is also a member of Burnham on Crouch Town Council.

The support from these stakeholders for the Wallasea project, their desire to see it completed, and their appreciation for the benefits Wallasea, and nature, had provided came across loud and clear. Without intervention, Wallasea’s tidal defences were at risk of uncontrolled breaching within 10 years, potentially increasing stress on other sea defences in the estuary, while also impacting oyster fisheries elsewhere in the estuary. Wallasea has not only helped reduce flood risk, it has protected around 10 shellfisheries jobs, and is expected to create 16-21 jobs in the area over the next 10 years. Local Councillors were particularly pleased at the increases in visitor numbers in the area, and hopeful that more would come to see the site in the future.

Rudmer and Henk were rightly impressed, but asked, “Wallasea seems to be a 9/10 project, what would have made it 10/10?”. Wallasea is a win-win project for nature and business, it’s an amazing example of what can be achieved, but it only started with the European Court judgement judgement against the UK Government, see here. As sea levels continue to rise, we are going to need more projects like Wallasea, We very much hope that the UK Government’s commitment to better implementing the Nature Directives will make this happen without requiring court action. That would be a 10/10 outcome.