I had the pleasure of visiting our Mersehead nature reserve last week, where spring is in the air and we were lucky enough to spot the first handful of migrant birds that have made it back to our shores for the summer, including swallows and chiffchaff. Combined with the fresh burst of green on the trees, the displaying lapwings and buzz of pollinators in the air the day left me with a zeal for the summer ahead, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of apprehension I have too...

Spring is a time of change of course, and with the Scottish Parliamentary Election less than a month away – and then the EU referendum hot on its heels – a lot that could change in the coming weeks. For those of us who work in the conservation sector though there is a third make-or-break decision looming; the results of the European Commission’s ‘fit for purpose’ review of the Nature Directives, expected at the end of June. These Directives, or laws, provide vital protection for some of our most important species and the habitats and places they depend on.

In the run-up to the EU referendum, we’ll strongly challenge both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns to explain how their stance will help protect and enhance the environment. Therefore, while the RSPB will at no stage be urging people to vote either way, we will continue campaigning to keep the Nature Directives strong and better implemented, and tell the world what we think is happening to these key legislative instruments.

If you’ve been following our Defend Nature campaign you’ll know that the directives have huge public and political backing across the EU. What other issue so comfortably unites those who hunt wildlife, with those who work to protect it? Our infographic details the campaign so far, with some truly startling facts. Combined with a wealth of evidence from NGOs, scientists and businesses the Commission’s draft findings of the fitness check were published last November and were relatively reassuring. In short, the report stated that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose and have contributed greatly to meeting the EU’s biodiversity targets. Any problems with the Directives were attributed to poor implementation at member state level, weak enforcement and a lack of complementary action within the EU, especially in key policy areas like agriculture.

Our hope is that the final report will remain focused on the evidence. However, we and our partners, Birdlife International, are concerned that although the Commission may not wish to renegotiate the directives, a ‘business as usual’ approach may ensue, which will not be sufficient to halt the continued loss of biodiversity we see across the EU, including in Scotland. So, in order to help lead the way Birdlife two weeks ago published its own recommendations in a report titled ‘From Nature Alert to Action’, which can be summarised as; we need better implementation, increased funding and action in the wider countryside to support positive management for wildlife. 

As I outlined in a recent article in The Scotsman, urgent action is needed to complete the designation of the Natura 2000 network in Scotland. On land, the Natura network is nearly complete. At sea, however, there are major gaps in the network and almost 37 years after the Birds Directive was adopted while the most important seabird breeding colonies on our coasts and islands are protected, there are no SPAs to protect the vital feeding areas at sea of any of Scotland’s internationally important breeding seabirds.

Problems have arisen in Scotland due to the failure of successive governments to support adequate research, leading to delays in the identification and subsequent classification of protected areas (particularly in the marine environment). Improved data collection could guide better targeted conservation action and aid the planning process by helping to inform the best location and proper assessment of development proposals, such as offshore wind farms.

But it’s not only research that’s thin on the ground. The European Commission has acknowledged that funding for Natura 2000 management is highly inadequate. Yet, on the other hand, perverse incentives in the agriculture and fisheries sectors have caused significant problems for wildlife.  Recent reforms to the EU’s fisheries policy have the potential to improve the situation at sea if fully implemented, and Scotland has taken a positive role in this; however, rapid changes in agricultural practices in the last 50 years have resulted in significant declines for many species associated with farmland in  Scotland. Unfortunately, payments to encourage  wildlife-friendly farming under the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are dwarfed by the direct payments received by farmers, who have to do little to protect wildlife in return. Although the CAP has undergone numerous reforms, there has been a longstanding failure to properly address farming’s environmental impacts though this policy, and farmers in High Nature Value areas receive less support than intensive producers on better land.  

Given that nature knows no boundaries, regardless of where the UK sits in relation to the European Union after the referendum, these laws will still have an impact on our wildlife, either directly for migratory species or indirectly through our shared climate, air and water. What happens to the Nature Directives will also dictate the success of much nature conservation work currently in progress, and our ability to meet international commitments to reverse wildlife declines by 2020.

We hope the European Commission have listened to our voices over the past year but only time will tell. If you want to hear more about our mission to save nature, including the latest on this campaign please sign up to RSPB Plus.