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Amidst all the bustle of Christmas, one of last month’s news stories was easy to miss. As red robins graced cards, and turtle doves flitted through carol recitals, wildlife charities published a new assessment indicating severe declines amongst Britain’s native bird species. According to the report 27% of UK bird species have declined to such an extent that they are now of conservation concern, up from 21% in 2009. It isn’t just birds – a separate study published last month showed British wildlife in general decline, with hedgehogs and bees among the many species under sustained threat.

These declines should be of real concern to Conservatives. As described in the 2015 Party Manifesto, for Conservatives the natural environment ‘‘is not some relic from a bygone era…it’s the living, breathing backdrop to our national life…our moors and meadows, wildlife and nature, air and water are a crucial part of our national identity.’’ Amongst the native bird species now considered to be of conservation concern are nightingales from British woods, curlews from British moorlands, and puffins from the coast. Feathered emblems of our green and pleasant land are fading away.

And yet things could be worse. An October 2015 EU-wide report into the state of nature across member states, comparing the current landscape to 2010, reported that ‘‘overall, biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU have continued’’. However ‘‘the number of species and habitats in secure/favourable or improved conservation status has increased slightly since 2010’’. The tide of environmental degradation has been slowed in Europe, with the report suggesting that this is due in large part to an increase in the number of environments protected by EU law. The ‘Natura 2000’ network of protected sites applies to all member states and now covers 18% of the EU’s landmass (compared to 16% in 2010).

It a small victory that British Conservatives have played a significant part in.  Back in the early 1990’s John Major’s Government helped to facilitate the Habitats Directive, the EU directive that laid the foundations for the Natura 2000 network. Defending the Government’s support for the Directive in in May 1994 then Environment Secretary John Gummer clearly laid out the Party position, moving that the House of Commons ‘‘recognises that the environment cannot be properly protected by national endeavour alone [and] acknowledges the importance of Europe-wide action to prevent pollution and improve environmental standards’’. 

Major’s Government understood why an EU-wide network of protected sites could make such an impact – wildlife doesn’t recognise national borders. Many of our most cherished species migrate between us and our neighbours. In order to be effective, networks of environmentally protected sites need cover all parts of these migration routes – the efficacy of protecting curlew’s summer nesting sites on the Northumbrian moors Northumbria is boosted if their winter nesting sites in Spain are protected by the same regulations.

The recognition of a borderless natural environment has contributed to modest progress in arresting the decline in Britain’s wildlife. It is however a victory that is under threat, the threat of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. UKIP has already painted the Habitats Directive in lurid colours as a legislative shackle on Britain, to be broken by BREXIT. It’s a sad prospect for wildlife – UK withdrawal leading to the shattering of Natura 2000 network, the splintering of the cross-national lattice of protected sites that has helped to slow down species decline.

Debates about the relationship between EU membership and British identity continue to intensify in advance of the referendum. From an environmental perspective the picture is clear – Britain’s EU membership has been a tool which has allowed Britain’s wildlife to be better protected. The landscapes and creatures that make up Shakespeare’s ‘‘Other Eden…this blessed plot’’ are guarded against 21st century threats by effective EU legislation. It’s an environmental reality we need to recognise, if we are serious about seeing nightingales, curlews and puffins (to name but a few) continuing to form a living, breathing part of our national identity.

 Matt Browne is an Associate at Bright Blue