TIME is running out for Scotland to deal with 'toothless' laws that will protect our precious environment as the UK finally exits the EU in just over a month's time.

The Scottish Environment LINK (SEL) coalition of nearly 40 leading conservation charities and groups has warned that weak legislation means the nation will not be able to properly deal with complaints about decisions affecting our environment.

The SEL is concerned that while Britain makes a final break from the EU, new Scottish measures are not enough to allow for effective action to protect our precious environment and landscape.

It says that Scotland's new watchdog, Environmental Standards Scotland, will be closely aligned to the Scottish government and will not have the powers and the independence to hold the government to account.

SEL says that with 80% of Scotland’s environmental legislation stemming from EU legislation, it is "vital" that measures to close the "environmental governance gap" are put in place at the end of the EU exit transition period on December 31.

Among those backing the fight is diving and wildlife charter boat skipper David Ainsley, who led a community action to make a "successful" complaint to the European Commission in 2007 about scallop dredging in the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

SEL said such action would not be available under the present regime in Scotland.# "The ability to take action on specific complaints is a key strength of the EU system, and has allowed people to challenge decisions affecting their environment, on land and at sea. But it’s missing from the proposed Scottish watchdog. The bill must be amended to include this power – and to make the watchdog truly independent of government," said SEL.

The Firth of Lorn action led to the EU’s Director General for the Environment to write to the Scottish Ministers to say that they had failed to carry out an appropriate assessment of the impact of scallop dredging had on the protected reefs and that dredging would have to stop unless it could be demonstrated the SAC was not adversely affected.

The SEL said that after an assessment by the Scottish authorities, informed by scientific research, it was found it could not be demonstrated that scallop dredging was not adversely affecting the integrity of the SAC.

The result was that in 2007, the Scottish Parliament passed regulations to prevent the Firth of Lorn SAC from further dredging.

SEL says that the ability of the community to raise a complaint with a higher body, in this case the EU Commission, and for it to independently require the matter be investigated was "crucial" to the successful outcome of the complaint.

But even this 'soft' enforcement option is not available to the watchdog under current Scottish arrangements, as complaints would have to go straight to judicial review, a "costly process" both in terms of time and resources.

Mr Ainsley, who is supporting SEL's Fight for Scotland's Nature said: “In 2007, after much struggle locally to halt the damaging practice of dredging, we won our case at an EU level and dredging in the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation (SAC) was ruled as illegal.

"It’s spectacular the difference this has made. The wildlife is thriving. Reef biodiversity has recovered to its pre-dredging levels, there are far more fish and because of this, there are many more predators such as porpoises, which have increased by almost 300%. It really is heartening to see the change. A healthier natural environment has also helped to support local businesses and create more jobs than when dredging was allowed.

“We were able to do this because as EU citizens, we had the right to raise concerns about our natural environment at the European Court of Justice and have an independent EU watchdog investigate it. This will no longer be possible when we leave the EU in just over a month’s time and could reverse decades of progress. This is a real tragedy.

“The Scottish government must ensure that the vital EU legislation that is aimed at tackling the continuing devastation of our marine environment is not watered down in the EU Continuity Bill. That the wellbeing of its citizens and our world prized nature is put at the heart of all decision-making.

“It must also change tack and give assurances that similar to the EU watchdog, the proposed environmental watchdog for Scotland will also be truly independent of government with the ability to hold it to account and enforce legislation. Sadly, as the Bill is drafted this is not the case.

“We are losing EU protections at a time when 1 in 9 species in Scotland is at risk of extinction. Now more than ever, we need the Scottish government to ensure future protections put in place for Scotland’s natural environment are meaningful and impactful."

Around 80% of Scotland’s environmental protections currently stem from EU legislation, which SEL say have had a positive impact on our environment. But it says nature continues to be under threat, with the State of Nature Scotland 2019 report finding 1 in 9 species in Scotland is threatened with national extinction and 49% of species in decline.

HeraldScotland:

Credit: Peter Trimming

"Leaving the EU without robust environmental protections and standards in place risks driving further decline at the very time we need to take bold action to tackle the nature and climate crisis while making sure nature is at the heart of a green recovery,"SEL said.

READ MORE: Brexit threatens to wipe out Scotland's rarest animals and put at risk iconic landscapes

Among SEL's concerns has been a method to replace the European Commission's LIFE-Nature Fund which has given £25 million over 25 years to Scotland to help with more than 25 vital conservation projects protecting the country's at-risk wildlife and landscape.

They previously warned the losers would include a bid to stop Scotland's red squirrels from becoming extinct, as well as moves to protect the hen harrier, harbour porpoise and the corncrake, one of Scotland's rarest birds.

LIFE has also helped preserve some of Scotland's treasured landscape because of their European importance.

Receiving support was the restoration of the Flow Country peatlands in Caithness, one of the last great wildernesses in the UK and the preservation of primeval Celtic rainforest, the native Caledonian pinewoods and Scotland's coastal meadows, called machair.

"We are therefore urging the Scottish Parliament to strengthen the EU Continuity Bill to give greater powers and independence to Scotland’s new environment watchdog, empower the new watchdog to investigate complaints about decisions affecting people’s local environment (similar to what David Ainsley achieved) and to enshrine in law the commitment to maintain or exceed standards, requiring Scottish Ministers to keep pace with developments in EU environmental law," SEL said.

It comes as a report by the Climate Emergency Response Group of civic and business leaders gave a “good, but could still do better” rating on dealing with the climate emergency.

It said that with one year to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland needs a plan of action to go with its world leading targets to show global leadership.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "In response to the threats to environmental standards that EU exit poses, the Scottish Government is committed to maintaining or enhancing our environmental standards. We shall align with future developments in EU standards wherever possible.”