The times they are a-changin’. A bit of ever-relevant lyrical gold certainly sums-up the state of affairs in the UK, where the historic referendum to leave the European Union (colloquially: Brexit) has a rippling effect across nearly every level of society. Taxation, trade, security, migration, and politics are all feeling the shake-up, which leads us at Spey, vigilant of our beloved namesake River Spey, to wonder: does Brexit threaten UK environmental protections, particularly campaigns to preserve the perilously threatened freshwater pearl mussel?
Today, the River Spey, together with her sister Rivers Tay, Dee, Clyde, Tweed, and others, continues its quiet and unceasing flow to the sea as it has done for millennia. But within the last hundred years, many influences including poaching, pollution, construction, and angling have conspired to deplete the once-abundant population of freshwater pearl mussels within her shallow waters. Critical to the health of the environment at large, these mussels now find themselves in a perilous state of survival; once plentiful across large swathes of Europe, Scotland now boasts 50 percent of the remaining populations. And the populations keep shrinking.
A Sticky, Red-Tape Situation
The red tape of dealing with Brussels pushed many in the UK to vote ‘leave,’ but that same bureaucracy over several decades helped clean-up the environment (and antiquated legislation) in Britain. From water to land to air, the EU’s rather stringent record on environmental protection is arguably one of its greatest achievements. Tough safeguards have been put in place to defend endangered species, protect consumers, and maintain a sustainable level of growth. Under directives (and more crucially, funding) from the European Union, programs existed to study and protect the endangered pearl mussel, but with the UK (which includes Scotland for the immediate future) exiting Europe, will Westminster in London pick up the slack?
Much of the UK’s environmental and wildlife regulation is rooted in EU directives, and indeed the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ published the day after triggering Brexit indicates that the EU legislation governing the environment, farming, and countryside will be copied into domestic UK law to ensure a smooth transition to the new economy. This partially eased the concerns of environmental campaign groups, but many believe something of a “Wild West” will ensue in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, as so many agendas are pushed through the Houses of Parliament. As has happened so often before, the environment may fall through the cracks.
Protection Ends, Protection Begins
One of the hallmark environmental initiatives of the EU was the pioneer Pearls in Peril campaign, co-funded by over a dozen institutions, which sought to study and protect the pearl mussel. But this four-year funding has now come to an end (coinciding with Brexit, but not arising from it). Spey is now taking the reins, funding an initial survey this summer of 11 Scottish rivers thought to maintain important pearl mussel populations. This research will lay the groundwork for continued conservation and reintroduction of the species. Why are we taking this step? To help keep progress moving forward. Much of the policy changes stemming from Brexit will take years to resolve; a critical loss of time for the endangered pearl mussel.
Greenpeace believes it is “much more likely, given the history of the UK resisting and weakening environmental directives from the EU, that we would ditch all the good bits and keep most of the bad bits” when Britain divorces from Europe. Spey is committed to fighting on behalf of Scottish mussels during and beyond this transition, given the huge risk and mounting uncertainties. Care to join us? Get in touch with Spey to discuss our work to save this species. “And keep your eyes wide,” to continue our Bob Dylan prelude. “The chance won’t come again.”