Seeking UK protected areas that are fit for purpose…

IUCN National Committee UK – Protected Areas Working Group

Just over a hundred years ago, Charles Rothschild submitted a list of 284 places in Britain and Ireland ‘worthy of preservation’ to the Government and commenced the formation of the UK networks of protected areas for conservation that we have today.  Since then, multiple types of protected area have been established in the UK, as motivated by both national and international legislation, and other international binding obligations.  The importance of protected areas as one, if not the most fundamental tool in the conservation toolbox, has not diminished, especially given the ever more rapid degradation of the wider, unprotected environment, as shown by the results of the monitoring of multiple species and summarised in the UK-wide State of Nature assessments.

Globally, protected areas have been highlighted as one of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s 20 ‘Aichi’ Targets – both in terms of quantity (there needs to be enough) and quality (they need to be managed and governed properly).  Aichi Target 11 required that:

“By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.”

Unfortunately, that target was not achieved either globally or nationally. 

So, what is the current state of the UK’s protected areas?  If they were clothes, with a few exceptions, most might be described as increasingly ‘tatty’ and needing mending.  Nearly all lack robust and regular regimes for monitoring (which is essential to understand what is happening to the species and habitats for which they are designated, and the resulting ecosystem services they deliver), assessment and management.  In February 2021, Minister Pow reported that “3,230 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) (78% of the total number) [in England] have not had a visit to determine their condition in the last six years (since 11 February 2015)…” Needless to say, without such fundamental information on the species and habitats of importance, delivery of appropriate management is ineffective if not impossible”.

What of the future?  A proposed new global target (strongly supported by the UK Government) is highly likely to increase ambition.  Draft Target 3 of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework seeks to:

“Ensure [by 2030] that at least 30 per cent globally of land areas and of sea areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.”

The Prime Minister has already indicated the UK will seek to deliver this target, so the question is how?  And critically not just which new areas but how the UK (across the four constituent countries and in the marine environment) will deliver the fundamental “effectively managed” requirement.

Under the scope of the IUCN, its UK National Committee (NCUK) – which brings together government agencies and non-government conservation organisations – has recently refreshed and re-energised its Protected Areas Working Group (PAWG), bringing together multiple lifetimes of expertise on these issues.  Whilst the PAWG has a UK remit, protected area policy is a devolved matter across the four countries.  The PAWG is in a position to help the Westminster government in delivering the ambitious agenda for English protected sites, to which it has previously committed through the 25 Year Environment Plan (that indicated a government ambition to “protect our most important wildlife sites and species … and help us to deliver on our ambition to lead international action against the degradation of habitats and loss of species“) and the Prime Minister’s aspirations.  Similar commitments have been made by the Devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The PAWG has two ‘tools’ in particular, which will be important.  First, a previously developed provisional assessment framework Putting Nature on the Map, which categorises different types of UK protected area – based on IUCN definitions – to enable the comparison of like with like, so providing a fundamental ‘taxonomy’ in any future consideration of the 30by30 target.  Second, the use of well-established Protected Area Management Effectiveness (PAME) methodologies to better understand (and critically, to enhance) the effectiveness of current protected area management in the UK.  The use of these tools will be important for a transparent public understanding of the status quo. as well as ensuring the maximal effectiveness of future proposals.

What needs to be done?  With a forthcoming government Green Paper on nature’s recovery in England and consultation on the binding targets to be set under the Environment Act (for England) as examples, we set out key steps forward to ensure the UK’s protected area network(s) are fit for an increasingly uncertain future.  It will be important that:

  • An adequately resourced monitoring and assessment programme for sites (across all the different designations) is established throughout the UK, to inform and guide the management of the protected areas, with annual reporting on progress against a legally binding protected areas target which grounds the UK Government’s (including all the Devolved Administrations) global commitment into domestic delivery;
  • Similarly, resources must be urgently made available to improve the quality of existing sites through their better management and addressing off-site issues affecting their condition, including the need for adaptive management as a consequence of climate change;
  • Recommendations from previous protected area reviews for UK Government and the Devolved Administrations need to be implemented, including for example, ensuring the current insufficiency of the UK SPA network is addressed;
  • Individual protected areas should be reviewed, and appropriately extended, to better create an ecologically connected network.  Such enlargements should include the designation of appropriate ‘corridor’ areas between sites to enhance the scope for species dispersion and strengthening their populations;
  • Reduce the pressures on wildlife by improving the wider environment, in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, including through buffering wildlife sites; and
  • Consideration given to what constitutes “other effective area-based conservation measures” in a UK context.

The UK’s natural environment is under unprecedented pressure – exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.  The network of protected areas which has been established over many decades provides wildlife-rich refuges, but over time these sites have been encroached and increasingly fragmented.  Now is the time to address needs that have been long appreciated, such as the recommendations of 2010’s Making Space for Nature review, and the third review of the Special Protection Area network of 2016.  The IUCN-NCUK’s PAWG is well placed to help the governments across the UK with their important work in taking these next steps.

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