A reaction from the RSPB's Chief Executive, Dr Mike Clarke, to the result of the referendum on the UK membership of the European Union

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A reaction from the RSPB's Chief Executive, Dr Mike Clarke, to the result of the referendum on the UK membership of the European Union

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The UK has voted to leave the European Union.

The RSPB has always believed that, because nature transcends national boundaries, it needs cross-border co-operation to protect it and a common set of international standards that enable it to thrive.

That is why, now the UK has decided to leave the EU, the RSPB believes the UK must continue to act internationally, and look to forge comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment.

But we also need action at home.  

David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves - our fast declining migratory bird

There are millions of people in the UK who love nature – just think about the viewing figures of BBC Springwatch. We need clean air and water, and we want an attractive countryside rich in wildlife.

It is essential that we do not lose the current, hard won, level of legal protection. Given the current state of nature, we should be looking to improve the implementation of existing legal protection and, where necessary, to increase it.

It will now be down to the governments in Westminster, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to make this happen.

As the new constitutional settlement is negotiated over the coming months (and years?), the RSPB will continue to be a voice for nature, raising the importance of environmental issues that has an impact on people, wildlife and the economy. We will provide a constructive challenge to all governments across the UK where necessary, and give credit where it is due; just as we always have done.   

And, of course, trans-national challenges such as protecting our migrating birds, tackling climate change remain, which is why we shall work internationally, as we have done so for over a hundred years, and will continue to act across Europe with our Birdlife International partners to tackle the many challenges facing nature.

In short, we shall continue to do whatever nature needs.

Finally, I hope that all those that have invested so much in this campaign take time to recover.  We need our leaders to be at their best as they make sense of this result and to rise to meet the challenges we and nature face.  Given that contact with nature is good for the soul, I recommend a visit to a local nature reserve this weekend. 

Ben Hall's image of RSPB Arne at dawn (rspb-images.com)

  • I completely agree with Keith Cowieson's points. From what I have read so far, the special unit to deal with Brexit does not have representation from the Dept of Environment/Energy and Climate Change. We need nature to have a voice on the bodies that plan and negotiate our exit.

  • I looked into UK wildlife legislation to see if leaving the EU would cause us a problem.

    The way EU Directives work is that Parliament has to pass its own law to bring the legislation into being.  No longer being a member of the EU does not negate that legislation.

    Looking at protected areas designation status:

    AONB are protected by several Acts, including the Environment Act 1995

    Areas of Special Protection are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

    Country Parks are protected by the Countryside Act 1968

    Limestone Pavements by the WCA 1981

    Local Nature Reserves by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949

    Marine Conservation Zones by the Marine and Coastal Act 2009

    Marine Nature Reserves under the WCA 1981

    National Nature Reserves by WCA 1981, and others.

    National Parks by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949

    Ramsar under world-wide international treaty.

    SSSIs by the WCA 1981 and other Acts.

    SPAs under the WCA 1981, and beyond 12 nautical miles by the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 2007

    World Heritage Sites under the World Heritage Convention

    National Trust by the National Trust Act 1907

    The Special Areas of Conservation are sites that have been adopted by the European Commission and fomally designated by the Government of each country in whose territory the site lies, meaning they are all formally designated by the UK Government.

    However, there are also SCIs, which are sites of community importance, and they are sites adopted by the European Commission but not yet formally designated by the government of each country.

    Candidate SAC's are sites that have been submitted to the European Commission but not yet formally adopted.

    In England, the number of SACs is 235.   The number of SCIs is just 7.  There are no candidate SACs in England.

    In Wales, the three numbers are:  85;  0;   0

    In Scotland, the three numbers are 236;   2;   0

    There are some cross-border sites (England/Wales/Scotland):  10:  0;  0

    However, there are some offshore sites, and the numbers are:  5;  10;  1

    SACs and SPAs form the Natura 2000 network.

    The above data was correct in the UK at 24th May 2016.

    I cannot guarantee this is all absolutely watertight, but it looks pretty comprehensive to me.

  • I completely agree with Keith Cowieson's blogs. We need to respect the democratic decision of the Brexit vote and take the new opportunities to save nature.

  • I'd be interested to learn how RSPB is planning to fund major increases in land acquisition over the coming years. If European SPA/SAC designations can no longer be relied on to defend our most important wildlife sites, ownership by conservation bodies will become the primary way of ensuring they continue to be protected and managed for nature.

    At the same time, it's unlikely that UK taxpayers will be prepared to carry on propping up uneconomic farming activities after the CAP ceases to apply. Expect many farmers to go out of business, especially in the uplands, and consequently large areas of sensitive land coming on the market.

    I hope RSPB (and other environmental charities) have a lot of money in the kitty - it's likely to be needed soon!

  • Nightjar (whoever you are),

    What a strange (3rd) Comment.  I suggest you go back and re-read the 2nd paragraph of my original Comment again - you appear to have missed the point.  The key words are '...the British electorate...' and '....on what they perceive...'

    Whether the evidence touted around in the Referendum debate is dangerous to the whole human race is an interesting observation.  I suppose if you accept David Cameron’s fears over a British EU exit leading to some sort of war or nuclear Armageddon then it might just be conceivable.  However, on balance, I view EU exit as significantly less of an existential threat to the human race than say an asteroid collision, super volcano eruptions or some unexpected major solar phenomenon.

    For what it is worth, I agree with you that is better for more of us to know more - and be able to judge the evidence for ourselves and that sparrowhawks starve when there is too little prey to support them.

    Interesting that you are so confident about what farmers will soon say – perhaps as confident as others were of a REMAIN referendum result?  And quite why you would want to quote me back at farmers is also a mystery, and yes I do know a couple, and am perfectly capable of telling them my views myself.  

    What I am advocating is that our Society seizes the opportunity to help fashion the national CFP and CAP replacements through positive, listening and constructive engagement with fishermen, farmers and other land managers (and their representative bodies if they have them) so that the gulf between ‘lay’ practitioners’ and ‘experts’’ respective views is narrowed (if one exists) and that a common understanding is fostered (if one needs to be).  I gave the example of the Scottish Government-endorsed Understanding Predation Project as a useful model for such dialogue.  Collaborators in that project included civil servants, NGOs, land managers and other interested stakeholders – all facilitated by academics from both natural and social science disciplines - with welcome and valuable RSPB Scotland participation throughout.

  • I think the RSPB behaved correctly in recommending which way to vote in a referendum. But now the vote has been decided democratically and I voted for in, but we now have to accept the way the vote went.



  • I'm also interested in your take on evidence, Keith. Equally dangerous, in this case to the whole human race, is dismissing information (I won't call them 'facts' because that would not be strictly correct) because it doesn't agree with your pre-conceived views. I do, however, agree that some people can be over bearing in their expertise - 'that is a fact, you have to agree with it'. And some birdwatchers can be very patronising to people who know less than them. The answer is for more of us to know more - and be able to judge the evidence for ourselves. It was therefore a great pleasure that literally millions of people were able to make their own judgement on the lives of Sparrowhawks in Springwatch this year and understand for themselves how the food chain, in all its 'nature red in tooth and claw' really works - and in particular understand that far from wiping out small birds, Sparrowhawks starve if there are too few of them.  

    And, more relevant to Mike's blog and experts and laymen, we will very soon be hearing a familiar refrain from farmers as farm subsidies come under discussion: 'you can't have a voice because you don't understand what we do'. I'll be ready to quote you back at them, Keith. I suspect quite a few will know who you are.

  • I agree with ‘Nightjar’ that it is undemocratic and ultimately dangerous to try to silence people who disagree with you – please desist.

  • I think RSPB have behaved entirely correctly in its handling of the Referendum debate. Equally, I am upset the way the vote went but we live in a democracy and even if one does not believe in the decision that is how it is. Which makes me increasingly angry with people who try to silence people who disagree with them - please desist, it is undemocratic and ultimately dangerous.  

  • Mike,

    It is always dispiriting when one’s advice is rejected by the country’s voters, and that is the risk that you run when Charities engage in national political debate.  On the assumption that RSPB membership broadly represents the society from which it is drawn, it is also probably fair to assume that RSPB membership was fairly evenly divided over whether to leave the EU too.  Indeed the demographics may even suggest that members were more likely to have voted for LEAVE than REMAIN.  Perhaps Council now ought to reflect upon whether or not our Society should be taking overt high-profile positions on such political issues, rather than simply laying out a balanced set of threats and opportunities as it sees them, without recommendation.  I for one would favour more emphasis on the seemingly humdrum but core bird protection-related issues and less high-profile politicking from our Society.  

    Moreover, not for the first time in recent years, the British electorate have delivered a rather damning verdict on what they perceive as an unlistening elite and establishment so-called ‘expert’ opinion - from Obama to the IMS & IFS, Bank of England, pollsters, bookies, captains of industry and many more.  In the light of that, I suggest that the Society as a whole would do well to follow the Scottish Government’s (and RSPB Scotland’s) example, as recently illustrated by its ‘Understanding Predation Project’ see here - http://tinyurl.com/zqdaz9l - by attempting to engage more with lay people and take their ‘hands-on’ practical conservation and management experience into account more often, when formulating policy positions and proposed management prescriptions.  In this respect, you will recall that one of the recommendations from the review of RSPB science 3 years ago was that the Society ‘…..should undertake more social science. Whilst biological research should remain fundamental to the society, we believe that economic analyses, conflict resolution, human behavioural studies, political science and governance are increasingly important in trying to find practical solutions to environmental problems’.  

    In the meantime, we are where we are as they say, and leaving the EU will present as many opportunities as challenges.  For example, we now have the opportunity to help a British Government shape national replacements for the frankly disastrous Common Fisheries and Common Agricultural Policies (CAP).  Taking full control of our extensive marine UK Exclusive Economic Zone again should allow future governments to manage better our fishing areas, permitted catches and allow fish stocks and seabed areas to recover, see here - http://tinyurl.com/zjwd43q, here, http://tinyurl.com/j25maoy and here http://tinyurl.com/j9l8cqk  Our seabirds and maritime habitats are under threat, now we can do something about it, unilaterally, over a vast swathe of oceanic and inshore waters.  

    Equally, we all know that the CAP was not delivering for wildlife at a continental and national level.  Now we can at least attempt to fix our national part of that problem – for as we all well know, one size does not fit all.  Perhaps a fresh look, root and branch review of Countryside Stewardship, Glastir, Scottish Rural Development Programme and Northern Ireland Countryside Management Scheme is in order?  

    Positive, listening and constructive engagement with future National, Regional and Local government bodies and agencies, and with local fishermen, farmers and land managers (who will all be looking for advice and guidance in a period of transitional uncertainty), should pay dividends.  We have the opportunity to develop truly inclusive, flexible and adaptive solutions for many of the challenges that our wildlife faces.  The Society can and should be at the forefront of these efforts – let’s seize that opportunity.        

  • As this shambles staggers towards its conclusion the prize is there for whoever can develop a coherent, positive vision of the future. The change that is coming is inconceivable to anyone brought up with the post-1947 settlement for agriculture and its CAP successor. For the first time both amount and purpose of the money we pay the countryside, up till now almost solely for food production, will be under real scrutiny - and threat. After decades of increasing scorn, mainstream agriculture may actually need the environmental voice on their side. Equally, conservation's deeply engrained culture of always asking for more money as part of any change will simply push its voice further into the long grass as the country hits economic problems way beyond anything we have experienced to date.

    The answers are there: particularly the in the pioneering work of the Natural Capital Committee which is demonstrating how we can be richer and have a better environment.

    And there can be no question of waiting to 'hold Government to account': the current Government's neoliberal dismantling of the state is bust beyond repair and they have no ideas for a positive future - and there's not a lot of hope amongst the other (English) major parties.  RSPB and its fellow travellers - and I hope for once that can spread to landscape, water and recreation lobbies - needs to get out there with its vision of the future and it will be the best and brightest of our future political establishment who will be wise to grasp and adopt it if England is to have any sort of positive future on its own.

  • If I understand correctly, the Nature Directives are now part of UK law, so would need further legislation to amend or repeal them. Hopefully, there will be so much in-fighting going on within the government that wildlife and habitat protection will escape notice and survive.

  • A good blog at a rather shattering time.I do so agree that it is vital that the UK and he RSPB continue to act internationally. The expertise and campaigning that the RSPB and its Birdlife partners can bring to nature conservation around the world and in Europe must not be reduced because of this referendum result.                                        

    I know the RSPB and other conservation bodies will work tirelessly to ensure the Birds and Habitats Directives remain strong and in. place in the UK, albeit perhaps under different names.

    What is certain is that the RSPB will have my fullest support in these troublesome times which are likely to threaten our wildlife.

  • To Bob Philpott. Bob, important as Hen Harriers are (and the RSPB is doing a lot, more than anyone else indeed) the whole future of nature conservation in the 4 countries that currently make up the UK is now at stake. Let's not muddy the waters.

  • Spot on, Mike. It's going to be a long haul and there'll be big challenges ahead. Important to see how things unfold I think - be prepared but don't speculate unnecessarily, as the media and some blogs are so keen to do. We are very fortunate to have the RSPB to fight nature's cause - it's going to be needed.