After the referendum

After a long and fractious campaign, we have a result. This is a momentous time which sets us thinking about the future, not just the next few weeks or months, but years and decades ahead.

The vision of our Wildlife Trust, along with the other 46 Wildife Trusts across the UK, is a long-term plan: to deliver a Living Landscape, with bigger and better managed nature reserves, linked together to form a countryside richer in wildlife and with people close to nature. Since the 1990s when we started to work at this more ambitious landscape scale, we’ve achieved a great deal with our 126 nature reserves and nine Living Landscape schemes. From the Great Fen to the Chilterns Chalk, from woodlands in Cambridgeshire to limestone grasslands in Northants and Peterborough, wildlife is doing better because of this Wildlife Trust. But we have been helped in that vision by national policies which recognise the value of nature to the people of this country and that have also adopted this long-term landscape-based approach to nature conservation.

In planning our future, I think it’s helpful to reflect on our past. For 15 years, I was a research ecologist before I joined the staff of this Trust. I had the great privilege to work with some of the greatest figures in nature conservation, such as Norman Moore and Derek Ratcliffe, and to learn more about the way conservation has developed with those who led the movement at the time. We can be proud of Britain’s pioneering role in conservation and in ecology, and the way that has influenced other countries, in Europe and beyond.

It was a Northamptonshire landowner, Charles Rothschild, who founded our precursor, the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, in 1912. That initiative continued despite two World Wars. I find it breath-taking and inspiring that a conference on nature conservation in post-war reconstruction was held in 1941, while London faced the Blitz, helping to frame the first comprehensive wildlife and landscape legislation in the 1940s. The 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act set up our National Parks, but also the mechanisms for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and National Nature Reserves. Not long after, in 1956, the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Naturalists Trust was established – a band of dedicated local people standing up for local wildlife and nature Over the next few years they were joined by wildlife organisations across our patch who joined together in the 1990s to form our Wildlife Trust.

Britain continued to develop and refine the legal framework for conservation, with clean air legislation in the 1960s, better protection for SSSIs and species in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, wildlife and the environment have also benefited greatly from EU legislation on clean air and water, and protection for the most vulnerable species and most important habitats.
The next few years, as Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, will be crucial in setting the future legal and policy framework for conservation. The level of protection we give to our SSSIs and other important wildlife sites, the planning system, the way we support and regulate agriculture and fisheries, the control of industrial pollution, even the way we educate future generations will have lasting impacts on the ways we in the Wildlife Trust movement work to protect wildlife and nature.

There may be pressures to ‘deregulate’ many aspects of our life when we leave the EU. That may include pressure to ignore or damage nature for short-term economic gain. I would argue strongly that, if the UK could afford to strengthen wildlife protection and to plan positively during and immediately after the Second World War, we can certainly do so as we leave the EU. 

Our priority now is to ensure that all the most important elements of EU environmental legislation are incorporated in UK law, and that over a century of wildlife protection and enhancement is not lost in the next few years of political negotiations. The campaign starts today.