Last month I pledged my political support to help protect the threatened turtle dove in Europe, becoming the RSPB's first MEP species champion. So I was deeply concerned when a new report this week revealed that turtle doves are amongst a number of bird species heading for extinction. Since 1970 turtle dove populations have declined by a shocking 93%. Illegal hunting, habitat loss and changes in farming techniques are all responsible for their rapid decline. The sobering truth is that unless we act now to protect them, we risk losing turtle doves in the UK altogether within the next 10 years.
In response the RSPB is trialling conservation techniques in the South East England and East Anglia to encourage turtle dove populations to recover. The managed land is helping turtle dove's recovery as it provides the ideal conditions for them to nest and breed. This excellent work is supported by the Birds and Habitats Directives, which form the cornerstone of EU's nature conservation policy. These two laws protect important wildlife and habitats, giving space to over 1,000 animals and plant species across Europe, including the network of 'Natura 2000' protected sites, and over 200 types of habitats including wetlands, forests and meadows.
The proof of the Birds and Habitats Directive's success is clear. Before this legislation, the UK was losing 15% of our protected sites a year. Since these laws were introduced we have reduced our loss to 1% - which is still too many! Areas protected include the Scottish Flow Country and the sand dunes and marshes of the north Norfolk coast, amongst many others. Alongside the turtle dove, other species including the basking shark, Dartford Warbler and the hazel dormouse rely on the EU's conservation laws to survive. It's a perfect example of long term strategic planning for the continent, and one that the Brits were able to shape in its development (indeed it was Boris Johnson's father who helped put them in place when he was an MEP).
The plight of the migratory turtle dove shows the urgent need to act on a European level to protect biodiversity and ecosystems. The journeys turtle doves take on their migration go across national borders, and so our protection must also be cross-border. That is why it is vitally important that we have strong pan-European legislation in place. The EU gives us robust and long-term conservation laws that allow threatened species to recover across the continent. Without these common minimum standards, our government and others would be free to scrap environmental standards with disastrous consequences.
As the RSPB's turtle dove species champion I am fighting to strengthen EU biodiversity legislation and make sure it is fully implemented in all EU countries, including those that still allow shooting of migrating birds. We all have a duty to do all we can to protect the turtle dove and other beautiful birds and wildlife. In order to do that the UK needs to be playing our full part, influencing the rules when the decisions are made and fighting to improve nature conservation across the continent. That means remaining IN the EU.