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The Big Picture
Calls for regulatory gaps to be closed to protect nature
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Charities are highlighting the potential impact of Brexit on wildlife and the environment. Kathryn Clark reports

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The Agriculture Bill does not contain the regulation that’s so desperately needed and nature will continue to take the rap

Three wildlife charities are calling for regulations protecting nature and the environment to be tightened up following the UK’s exit from the EU.

The Wildlife Trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are concerned that regulatory gaps could open as the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is replaced by the UK government’s proposed new system of support to farmers.

A recent report commissioned by the charities examines the risk to nature posed by losing the current conditions attached to farming support. Payments under the cross-compliance mechanism in the CAP are often tied to compliance with environmental measures – a link that will disappear on leaving the EU.

The report also notes that many environmental regulations applying to the agriculture and wider land-use sector in England, and elsewhere in the UK, are based in EU law.

It suggests that there are ‘significant gaps’ in the regulatory baseline when it is set alongside current and future environmental priorities.

According to the report, there are two challenges to meet when moving toward a ‘forward-looking post-EU environmental regime for agriculture in England’ – setting up a new overarching framework of environmental regulation that meets the needs of coming decades, and delivering the relevant components of that framework on the ground.

The three charities say that while the government’s Agriculture Bill ‘presents a welcome transformative vision for agriculture’, it ‘misses the need to improve the way government will ensure farmers meet minimum environmental standards post-EU exit’.

They warn that regulations that, for example, ensure that hedgerows are not cut during the bird nesting season, or ensure that wild ‘buffer’ strips alongside hedgerows are not ploughed or sprayed with pesticides, will be lost without additional domestic legislation.

They want the government to include a power in the Agriculture Bill to introduce and enforce a new regulatory framework to address the gaps and strengthen enforcement. They believe that the new Office for Environmental Protection, which the government plans to introduce under an associated Environment Bill, should have the power and resources to hold public bodies to account to ensure environmental regulations relating to agriculture are implemented and enforced effectively.

Ellie Brodie, senior policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts, said: ‘We’re really concerned that the Agriculture Bill does not contain the regulation that’s so desperately needed and nature will continue to take the rap. Gaps must be filled and enforcement must be strengthened if we’re to address the nature crisis and climate emergency.’

Debbie Tripley, director of environmental policy and advocacy at WWF, added: ‘Unless the government starts plugging the gaps left by leaving EU regulation, our soils, hedgerows and the wildlife that depends on them are at risk. We need firm but fair enforcement and advice that ensure food is produced to high environmental standards across the country.

‘And our farmers’ efforts must not be undercut by imports that are cheap in price but catastrophically expensive for our natural world and climate – so future trade deals must clearly reject deforestation and other poor agricultural practices, at the same time as we invest in standards and proper enforcement in the UK.’ ●

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