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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 20:25 GMT
UK 'failing to protect wildlife'
Otter picture
Otters are classed as an endangered species
The European Commission has issued a warning to Britain for failing to protect endangered wildlife such as the otter, great crested newt, sand lizard and some species of bat.

The commission complained about the licensing of some UK construction projects which may infringe the European Habitats Directive, Europe's most important piece of nature conservation legislation.


We must take our legal safeguards seriously, or we face the wipe-out of endangered species through the creeping loss of habitats

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom

It says the British Government has failed to fulfil its obligation to prevent damage and destruction to breeding areas and habitats set aside for rare and threatened breeds.

The government now has two months to respond to the warning, and will face court action if it fails to convince Brussels that it is honouring the terms of the directive.

Germany has also come under fire from the commission for "failure to ensure the protection of the habitats of an endangered hamster, the Cricetus cricetus".

'Better management'

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said on Monday: "We must take our legal safeguards seriously, or we face the wipe-out of endangered species through the creeping loss of habitats."

A "reasoned opinion" - the first step on the road to the European Court of Justice - set out the commission's complaint.

Commissioners said: "Licences seem to be issued as a formality after development consent for a construction or infrastructure project has already been given.

They said some licences did not appear to involve a careful weighing of the arguments for and against allowing damage to occur.

Chris Howe, head of future landscape for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), says the group has been campaigning for stricter application of the Habitats Directive for all member states, since its introduction in 1992.

He also believes that while there are now many protection projects in place around the UK, some are not being well maintained.

"We must make sure that in all these cases the management is put in place to ensure the continued effectiveness of these conservation projects," he told BBC News Online.

Mr Howe added that the new Wildlife and Countryside Act, which gained Royal Assent earlier this year, should further help to protect endangered species.

Otter threat

The EU Habitats Directive lays down a range of safeguards, including a ban on any interference in the breeding places of a list of endangered creatures.

Exceptions are only allowed under strict conditions, including confirmation that there is no satisfactory alternative for a construction project except on land covered by the directive.

The otter first faced extinction in the UK in the 1950s, due to a threat from pollution from pesticides and changing habitats.

But the work of conservationists in recent years has successfully reintroduced the animal to many parts of the UK.

Research conducted by the Environment Agency in Wales last year, however, showed that busy roads were posing a new threat.

Many otters have been killed after being forced onto roads because of blocked water culverts.

Last year developers were being urged to improve road and bridge design to stop the numbers of deaths rising.

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See also:

12 Feb 01 | Europe
Germany faces hamster reprimand
07 Feb 01 | Scotland
Backing for beaver's return
13 Jul 00 | Wales
Otters under threat on roads
30 Aug 99 | UK
Learning to love bats
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