Belfast Telegraph

Stanley Johnson: When nature is protected we are all much better off

Don't listen to my son Boris, says Stanley Johnson. If you care about Northern Ireland's natural environment, vote Remain on June 23

People across Northern Ireland are battling with the European Union question. Doubtless, there are people on both sides, hammering their points home for your votes. You may have read my son's views - he's been quite forthright with them. But for all the love and respect I have for Boris, my view is different: I think it's crucial we vote to Remain in this referendum.

My own career as an environmental campaigner and Conservative MEP led me to see the value in an institution like the European Union. The environment is my great passion in life: when nature is protected, we are all better off.

This corner of our green and pleasant land has benefited so much from EU protections. Whether it be the north Antrim coast, the Fairy Water Bogs, or Hollymount, there are more than 150,000 hectares protected as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) in Northern Ireland - areas protected because of Europe's help, meaning we can keep the land beautiful for the next generation.

In fact, there is so much of our beautiful land conserved in this way that 93% of people living in the UK are less than 15 miles from a protected site. We all benefit from being able to enjoy nature, confident in the knowledge that it is looked after.

The wildlife that makes this part of the world so beautiful has benefited, too; like the red squirrel, which is down to only 40,000 in Northern Ireland. But the EU Life Plus-funded project, Red Squirrels United, has been established to reverse that decline, so our children will also be able to see Squirrel Nutkin in the wild, not just in storybooks.

Then there is the harbour porpoise. It has declined by around 25% in the last 50 years, due to entanglements and drowning in fishing gear. Northern Ireland now has the first UK Special Area of Conservation designated for this species, which protects it when planning applications are made for projects like tidal energy.

Due to pressure from the European Commission, the River Faughan was designated as an SAC for Atlantic salmon. And our grey seals can be seen in Dundrum Bay, Skerries and Causeway and the Maidens: places which are protected by the EU Habitats Directive.

The unique horse mussel reefs in Strangford Lough form dense reefs which act as habitat for other marine life, like colourful soft corals, anemones, lobsters, oysters and commercially important fish species.

Trawling was damaging this important biogenic habitat and prized resource and the UK Government wasn't doing anything about it.

Europe stepped in and threatened infraction proceedings to force the UK Government to enforce the protections. The temporary ban that followed has now become permanent; the mussel reefs - and the marine life that depend on them - can flourish.

It's easy to say the UK Government would protect our countryside and wildlife even if we left the EU. But the facts don't bear that out.

The horse mussel reefs are just the start of it. Before the EU stepped in, every year, 10-15% of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) were damaged. Now it's 0.01%.

Europe had to force UK Governments - of all political colours - to clean up our beaches. Back in the 1970s, we didn't so much swim at the British seaside as go through the motions. It was full of raw sewage.

We only had 18 beaches deemed to be suitable for bathing, which is pretty astounding, bearing in mind the amount of coastline we have.

Only with strong action from Europe did we end up with more than 600 beaches designated for bathing and weekly testing of water quality during the holiday season. Sometimes Westminster politicians make decisions for the short term - and that doesn't work for nature.

Maybe wildlife and habitats don't get your pulse racing like they do mine. There's a very important point at the heart of this, though: some problems we cannot tackle on our own.

Not because we aren't great enough - we are great - but because the issues cross national boundaries. The birds don't queue up at the border waiting for their passports to be checked.

(Neither, by the way, do the sorts of global businesses that try to avoid environmental standards and would be only too glad for individual nations to squabble between themselves).

Drop a plastic bag on the coast of northern France and it won't stay there. It may find its way to Northern Ireland, endangering our wildlife, and visa versa.

You can't build walls against water and air pollution - and they will only get worse if we turn our backs on the co-operation we have established over decades.

That's why, rather than turning away, we should be making the EU work for us.

Environmentalists for Europe want to press for greater ambition and get the problem of plastics in our seas solved at European level: for a start, by ending the use of disposable plastic drinks bottles that blight our marine life.

Porpoises, fish and birds suffer from ingesting tiny bits of plastic and we also need to shift to using our resources more carefully.

Our throwaway society can - and should - change. It's very hard, if not impossible, to make this change just in one country.

But if the EU adopted this measure, it would transform the world's market in bottled drinks. Wouldn't that be something to be proud of?

I don't believe in a grand European project. There are many ways that Europe needs improving and reforming. We can only make sure it reforms in the right way by being involved.

I do believe in going with what's pragmatic and what works. We need to be in Europe, because there are challenges we can only overcome by working with other nations. And I've seen at first hand that the EU at its best can seriously resolve these big problems.

I hope you can join me in voting Remain on June 23.

Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist and author who is a former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate

Belfast Telegraph


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