Turtles, whales and birds under threat as UK overseas territories face loss of conservation money after Brexit

'We have very few pots of money open to us. The EU has stepped up to try to address this void and we are worried that Brexit will take us backwards'

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Sunday 09 September 2018 19:52 BST
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Turtles on the Caribbean island of Anguilla are among the animals under threat after European funding is lost
Turtles on the Caribbean island of Anguilla are among the animals under threat after European funding is lost (Getty)

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Whales migrating across the Atlantic Ocean, turtles in the Caribbean and unique cloud forests in St Helena are all under threat as EU conservation projects are set to grind to a halt after Brexit.

Following reports of the Falkland Islands’ penguins entering troubled waters as European funding dries up, conservationists working across Britain’s overseas territories have raised the alarm about the wider impact of this lost money.

Due to their unusual status as neither fully parts of the UK nor independent states, these territories cannot access most domestic and international funding.

This means EU money has offered a lifeline, and supports around a third of their conservation efforts. There is currently no plan to make up for the shortfall that will emerge when existing projects finish.

Stretching from the British Antarctic Territory to the Cayman Islands, the 14 UK overseas territories are home to hundreds of creatures found nowhere else on Earth.

“There’s lots still unknown about the territories, they are quite a frontier,” said Jonathan Hall, who leads the RSPB’s overseas territories operations.

“But they do hold at least 1,500 unique species – compared to the UK which has about 90.”

These forgotten corners of the globe are home to more penguins than any other nation, a third of the world’s albatrosses and the largest coral atoll on the planet.

Many of the animals and plants found in these territories are critically endangered, and scientists estimate there are more than 2,000 species still awaiting discovery in their forests and lagoons.

As the Brexit date looms, the government has promised to continue supporting ongoing projects in these regions, but beyond that local environmental groups are worried about how they will stay afloat.

“It’s a huge concern,” said Charlie Butt, Caribbean territories programme manager at the RSPB.

“The loss of a third of funding would be catastrophic from a conservation perspective.”

For his part, Mr Butt is overseeing efforts to eradicate invasive species such as rats and green iguanas from British Caribbean territories.

Unique birds such as the Montserrat oriole are currently threatened with extinction, and European cash supports the training of local people and the development of national measures to avert this crisis.

Meanwhile, Dr Esther Bertram from Falklands Conservation said the loss of funding threatens efforts to monitor the elusive sei whales that traverse the islands’ coastal waters.

British oil companies are currently moving operations into the region, and research is needed to ensure they avoid the whales’ migration routes.

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“We have very few pots of money open to us. The EU has stepped up to try to address this void, and we are worried that Brexit will take us backwards,” said Dr Bertram.

On top of its “Best” initiative for overseas territories, the EU has recently opened up its massive Life funding programme – with the potential to fund projects worth 5 million euros – to them for the first time.

“From a territories perspective we are leaving at just the wrong time,” said Mr Hall, explaining that existing projects in these territories do not exceed £300,000.

“If there was the ability to have a £1-2m project, that could do transformational cloud forest restoration or iguana species recovery or whale research.”

Farah Mukhida, who leads the Anguilla National Trust and oversees projects focused on preserving the island’s vulnerable turtle and iguana populations, said this could just be the beginning of missed opportunities.

“We are really disappointed, and it’s a shame the UK overseas territories weren’t really consulted or residents weren’t able to have a say in Brexit – because they do carry a British passport,” she said.

Currently the remaining two-thirds of conservation funding comes from the UK’s Darwin Plus programme, and the conservationists say an “easy win” would be simply to make up the shortfall by expanding this initiative.

The Lords EU committee raised some of these concerns with former Brexit secretary David Davis in September 2017, and criticised the “lack of detail” in Davis’s response when one was finally received in March 2018.

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“We fear that the lateness of the response, combined with the lack of detail in the reply, will do little to reassure the overseas territories that you are, as you claim, taking seriously the issues raised by them,” wrote committee chairman Lord Boswell of Aynho.

Mr Hall said there is a tendency in the UK to overlook these distant lands, and while more powerful lobbies had received concrete responses to their Brexit concerns, the environment in overseas territories had been left with “a big question mark”.

In response to these concerns, a government spokesperson said: “As set out in our 25-year environment plan, we remain committed to taking action to recover threatened, iconic or economically important species, and to prevent human-induced extinction or loss of known threatened species in our overseas territories.

“We recognise the great importance of these unique environments, and are considering how environmental funding for them can best be provided after we leave the EU.”

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