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Opinion & Analysis

#Stephen'sNiche: Brexit bad for British territories' biodiversity

Is there no limit to Brexit’s reach? It turns out that the repercussions of leaving the European Union won’t be felt just by people: It’s bad news also for birds. And lizards. And frogs.

At least, for those in the remaining Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies it is.

That was the view taken by delegates at a conference in Alderney last month to discuss the future of the environment in these remnants of Empire, ranging from Bermuda and the Pitcairn Islands to the Falklands and Gibraltar. The UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum coordinated the event, which saw the participation of the environment ministers of most of the territories including ours, Dr. John Cortes. He co-chaired the meeting alongside Alderney’s Chief Executive, Victor Brownlees.

The ministers expressed concern about the financial impact Brexit is already having.

A paper published last year noted that the Overseas Territories’ importance for biodiversity dwarfs that of mainland UK. 94% of the UK’s endemic species are actually found in the territories. Yet their governments claim that money London would in the past have allocated for environmental protection is being diverted away in favour of traditional job creation. Spending on the climate has been slashed by almost a half, and this could have serious consequences for threatened and endangered species in the UK’s outposts.

The Environment Ministers also complain “it can be hard to pin down the Departments and individuals in UK Government who should be consulted”. “Rapid ministerial changes further aggravate the situation”, they add. They say Brexit is not an excuse to put everything on hold and assert that there’s no excuse for stopping environmental protection.

If this weren’t bad enough, Brexit will also result in a loss of EU funding. Many territories have received substantial sums from Europe to help not just with wildlife conservation but infrastructural projects too. This will cease once the UK has left the club. An Alderney post-conference press release plaintively states that EU funding for UK Overseas Territories conservation must be replaced.

Luckily for us Gibraltar isn’t among the places most likely to see its fauna and flora jeopardised by any environmental retrenchment.

Islands like St. Helena and Bermuda have hundreds of species that are found nowhere else and others, the Caymans and Montserrat for instance, are home to endangered species. Gibraltar on the other hand only has two known endemic species, the Gibraltar Campion and a type of snail, and neither is in imminent danger.

That doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent. Gibraltar has benefitted enormously from European structural funds down the years: Commonwealth Park, which was part-funded by the EU, is one high-profile example. This source will dry up after Brexit.

And whereas other Overseas Territories know that UK cuts would harm the environment in their parts of the world, we don’t know yet whether and how we on the Rock might be affected.

Let’s hope the Prime Minister keeps her promise to steadfastly support Gibraltar, its people and its economy. And that she’ll be steadfast too in upholding the sovereignty of British Gibraltar Territorial Waters should Spain seek to justify future incursions on the basis that it’s enforcing EU law.

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