Beavers among wildlife under threat from Polish legal proposals

Beavers may not be the only animals under threat in Poland from planned changes to nature laws, which breach EU rules.

While amendments to the Nature Protection Act are aimed directly at beavers, they may also affect other wildlife, like wolves or bison, which are strictly protected.

The legal changes may also result in considerable damage to habitats which are inhabited with other precious wildlife.

EU law breach

“Changes proposed by the government will have a negative impact on the ability of Poland’s laws to protect nature and they are also in conflict with EU law, which is binding in Poland,” says Agata Szafraniuk, lawyer for ClientEarth, based in Warsaw.

“We hope that our submission to the public consultation will be taken into account. Otherwise, it will be further evidence that EU law protects Polish natural richness better than the Polish government.”

In Poland, as in other countries where the beaver population is on the increase, co-existence with humans pose serious challenges. Farmers often complain that their fields are flooded because of dams built by beavers, and that trees are damaged.

That’s why making it easier to shoot beavers, which the proposals would allow, could bring some short-term political benefits for the government.

From the long-term perspective though, the consequences are deplorable.

Beavers aren’t all bad

Beavers are not only extremely important for ecosystems and biodiversity but also for mankind. In the case of Poland, a country with one of the lowest drinking water levels in Europe, similar to Egypt, they are particularly important as they enhance retention of water and its self-purification.

Unlike in the UK and across most of Europe, Polish beavers are only partially protected.

At present, in order to receive permission to kill beavers, Polish applicants must prove that there is no other means to prevent damage to crops or farmland. If the proposed amendments are adopted, that criteria would no longer be required.

EU law allows protected animals to be killed only in very specific cases and only if there are no alternative methods. The proposed amendments could mean those requirements are no longer properly respected –  violating EU law.

Environmental damage

Another likely consequence of the proposals is that environmentally damaging developments will be made in wildlife-friendly locations.

“The biggest concern is for areas that have been identified as hosting special species and habitats but which have not yet been approved as Natura 2000 protected areas by the European Commission,” added Marek Szolc, lawyer in ClientEarth’s Warsaw office.

Under the EU Habitats Directive, if a project undergoes assessment and is considered likely to have an adverse effect on a protected site’s ecosystem, normally it must be rejected.

However, there is a provision that allows it to go ahead if three tests  – overriding public interest; no alternative; and compensatory measures to maintain coherence of the Natura 2000 network  – are satisfied.

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth have raised concerns about one of the proposed amendments which removes the discretion for decision-makers to stop a project going ahead even if these three tests are met.

Marek said: “We fear that the overall loss of biodiversity will be much greater because a proper evaluation of compensation for the damage done by a project will be more difficult in practice. This is an example of the standard of protection required by EU law being undermined by this proposal.”

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