ECOS 38 (3): Brexit and the Scottish Environment

Brexit brings uncertain challenges and unintended consequences for  Scotland’s environment. Keeping wildlife concerns integrated with community planning matters should be part of the emerging agenda.

European conservation framework in Scotland – what could be lost

The Scottish environment has benefited in two main ways from membership of the European Union: legal protection offered by directives, and a variety of funding measures. For example, Stuart Housden, outgoing Director of RSPB Scotland has said “Over the last 40 years, the European Union has significantly influenced the state of Scotland’s environment – both positively through regulations such as the Nature Directives and negatively through unreformed agricultural subsidies”.1 Brexit will entail the loss of a powerful means of scrutiny over how the UK manages the environment, with no obvious replacement of it.2 Scotland’s First Minister told National Farmers Union Scotland that agriculture is more important to the Scottish economy than it is to the UK and that Brexit presents “the biggest challenge to farming in Scotland”.3

More significantly there are a range of concerns about the loss of funding of a range of agricultural and environmental schemes following Brexit. These include the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme, which helps more than 11,000 farmers and crofters in Scotland, and reduced funding for environmental schemes provided through the Common Agricultural Policy; as well as weakened protection of key species and habitats currently provided by European directives.

Brexit impacts on the Scottish marine environment

However while many of these measures are not limited to Scotland, the effects of Brexit on marine protection and fisheries are likely to be felt more significant in Scotland because of the reliance on its fishing industry and nature of its marine environment. Fish farming is heavily criticised for high levels of pollution from pesticides, which breach environmental safety limits and the damage in inflicts on the ecology of sea lochs, which are major features of the Scottish landscape. 

New horizons for Scotland’s communities

A community planning charrette was recently held in Kincardine, Fife. Coalfields Regeneration Trust facilitated the conversation that looked at connecting natural places and heritage assets, including RSPB Skinflats, Devilla Forest and Longannet, Scotland’s last coal-fired power station. Coinciding with the June election, everyone wore “I voted for my community” stickers, and nobody talked about national politics. 

In the wake of King Coal, many of the communities situated on the Firth of Forth are embracing the rewards of wildlife, recreation and tourism. Away from the central hub, the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s subsidy driven crofting communities could be equally severe. Yet enabled by the digital economy many crofters are adapting to these changes quickly and efficiently, diversifying into other industries like forestry and tourism.  

Supported by organisations like the Scottish Crofting Federation4 with the support of the Scottish Government, crofting townships reduce rural flight, promote skills development and sustain rural infrastructure essential for tourism. If you take people or wildlife from that equation, Scotland’s tourism industry and allure will become muted.

Could productive forestry and wildlife thrive together

Plantation forestry will be a major force post-Brexit as farmland is leased or sold to developers benefitting from the same political and funding support that wind energy had. As with renewables driven by energy security and climate change, forestry ticks all of these boxes and more. As proposals rapidly take shape though, can our wildlife secure a better deal out of that investment?

The task for the forestry lobby is to share the success story that Scotland has become for people, environment and economy alike. However to replicate that, big forestry will need to nurture long-term relationships with the ecosystems and communities that host their product. Creating public access routes and wildlife opportunities in newly planted and expanded forests will be high on the agenda for communities and NGOs.

Liberalizing the countryside

As the UK pulls out of Europe, the potential loss of regulation over protected species and the use of banned pesticides is a worry for us all. Problems will manifest in unpredictable and harmful ways if a laissez-faire rural economy is left unchecked. Much like the flooding of 2015-16 that forced the UK Government to rethink how the uplands are managed (or not).   

With the support of NGOs and industry, the UK Government must weigh up all of the risks and liabilities associated with cutting through any EU red tape post Brexit. Insurance companies will play a key role in that conversation, and rightly so given the stakes posed by deregulation. Perhaps the challenge will be preventing that debate from becoming dominated by financial interest alone.

Urban-rural connectivity is having a major influence on Scotland’s countryside. And in a post-EU Scotland it might be easier for new crofts, huts and other improvised dwellings to get planning consent. In turn attracting people to places that might have returned to wildness post Brexit, would allow us to spend more time with nature, on both a functional level and in a recreational sense.

 2 Scottish Universities Legal Network on Europe

3 BBC News


Roger Sidaway is an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh and an independent Research and Policy Consultant specialising in countryside management.

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James Thomson is a consultant and facilitator with Melt Communications.

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Thomson, James and Sidaway, Roger “ECOS 38 (3): Brexit and the Scottish Environment” ECOS vol. 38(3), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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