Conservation and Brexit

10/05/2016 17:29 | Updated 10 May 2016

I was listening to my favourite science podcast the other day when the topic turned to the EU referendum. I reached for fast forward, but it was actually refreshing to hear the subject debated by two scientists. Scientists who were just so, well, reasonable! Though representing opposite sides, they clearly respected each other, agreed with a lot of what each other said, and only based their statements on facts from peer-reviewed science. It made a pleasant change from the petty point-scoring of power playing politicians and the vox pop bleats from rent-a-rants on the street.

However, even the pro-Brexit voice willingly conceded that his fellow scientists are overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU. The House of Lords Science and Technology committee have been collecting reports from the scientific community since 2015, and report exactly this; to the extent that the committee really struggled to find pro-Brexit voices to provide balance in their debates. They concluded that what we contribute to the EU, and receive back for research, leaves us with a considerable net gain. There was a lot of talk of Horizon 2020, the EU's monumental scientific initiative with 80billion euros of funding available for research before... err, 2020. We have disproportionate impact and influence in European science policy, which we could lose if we leave.

So what about wildlife? The Greens are convinced Britain should remain in the EU for the sake of the environment. Former environment secretary Owen Paterson on the other hand is for Brexit. It struck me that I didn't know anything like enough about the issue, so I decided to contact my friends in conservation organisations, to find out what they think.

My first port of call was Buglife, the first wildlife charity who'd have me as vice president way back in my Really Wild Show days. The real work at Buglife is done by stupefyingly intelligent entomologists, with a genuine passion for creepy crawlies. Their goal is to protect the small things that make the world go round, and to my eye they have always been apolitical. CEO Matt Shardlow had this to say:

"...the EU has benefited bugs in many ways and in our expert opinion continuing to work closely with other countries in the EU to fix environmental problems should bring more benefits to the continent's wildlife than the UK going it alone."

His colleague Paul Hetherington adds:

"While British politicians in Brussels have been introducing regulations that have transformed wildlife and environmental custodianship across Europe, back in Britain their counterparts and superiors have very largely not matched their zeal for a better future. The UK is also to be found blocking new EU efforts to improve air quality, ban harmful pesticides, introduce legislation to protect soils and confirm new measures to check that candidate pesticides do not harm bumblebees or solitary bees."

Buglife have done a thorough risk assessment of Brexit, which can be found online. But much of it rests on the fact that our fauna and flora here in the UK is essentially European. After all, many of our butterflies, dragonflies and bees travel to and from the continent, as do some of the diseases and pollutants that threaten them.

And what about the birds? They are legendary in their wanton disregard for passports and national borders. Martin Harper, RSPB's Director of Conservation, said much the same:

"Given that nature knows no boundaries (for example birds migrate), the RSPB has always believed we need to act internationally especially as the threats (such as pollution) are often diffuse. Comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment are therefore essential."

OK so that one was quite careful. Less so was Graham Buckingham of Bite-Back Shark and Marine Conservation. Graham quit his job to set up the charity in his bedroom (for which he should surely get a Pride of Britain award?), and is currently battling to change the EU ruling that allows anyone entering Europe to import 20kg of shark fins for 'personal consumption'.

Graham said:

"As it stands, with support from three or four strong EU allies, the UK can spearhead a campaign that can change the law across all 28 member states. However, if the UK leaves the EU we will be forced to campaign in multiple countries to achieve the same result. A vote to leave the EU could set shark conservation initiatives back a decade."

Well, I didn't expect Graham to sit on the fence. Another shark saviour, Ali Hood (Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust) added:

"Whilst Brexit would give the UK an independent voice in International fora, in the absence of the UK's influence within the EU, we could see the loss, or even reversal, of the EU's commitment to shark and ray management." Guy Stevens, Founder and Chief Executive of the Manta Trust agreed; "Brexit would disadvantage UK charities ability to raise funds in the EU and reduce conservation initiatives for sharks and rays in Europe".

Similar sentiments came from Richard Benwell of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, who said:

"It's clear that no country can save nature alone. While it's not the only way to cooperate, the EU has been the foundation of UK conservation for so many years that Brexit would mean years of challenge and uncertainty for organisations like the WWT."

Well what about a much more domestic perspective? Conservation really has to begin on your own home patch, so my next call was to Estelle Bailey, who runs my local Wildlife Trust, another person I trust. One example of an issue that affects the counties I've lived in since birth, is that some heathland is protected under the Habitats Directive because they provide breeding territory for threatened species like the nightjar and Dartford warbler. If we leave the EU Local Councillors have already called for their protection to be downgraded, because it makes it more expensive to develop houses nearby. Estelle did however agree with my friends at the WWF, who mentioned that the EU has been far from perfect when it comes to farming policy, fisheries, flood protection and clean water. Both organisations agreed that either way there would be both benefits and challenges, though WWF sum up: "on balance, Britain's membership of the EU has delivered benefits for our environment."

My last email was to the organization I most recently became a patron of, the World Land Trust. Most of their work is in far-flung exotic jungles, so I was expecting a different perspective. I wasn't expecting them to put me straight in touch with Boris Johnson's dad Stanley! He's one of their vocal supporters, and believes his son has it wrong when it comes to the EU and the environment. Stanley states that: "As the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee inquiry points out... as members of the EU we can push for reforms that protect nature across borders. Leaving puts that at risk. It threatens air and water quality, risks removing safeguards for natural habitats, affects our ability to reduce our carbon footprint and much more." He goes on to say that the EU is in need of development and overhaul, but that to pull out completely would be hugely damaging.

I used to be strongly against the whole idea of a referendum. I thought the implications were too complex for the likes of me to tackle. Surely this is why we have politicians and civil servants who've done PPE at Oxbridge; to figure these things out for us? I didn't want decisions that massive made by me - or by some bloke at the pub, based on the fact he's never much liked the French! I know though that I can't cop out of it anymore. Our membership of the EU is a huge subject, infinitely complex and potentially impacting every aspect of life. The environment is just one element, and neither I - nor any of the organisations I spoke to - believe in telling anyone how to vote. I will base my decision on what's important to me, I believe you should do the same.