UK failing to protect land for nature

Ness Amaral-Rogers

Thursday 2 September 2021

  • New paper indicates as little as 5% of UK land is protected effectively for nature.
  • These results are in stark contrast to the 28% claimed by the UK Government as part of their “30 by 30” campaign commitment to global biodiversity targets.
  • To achieve the target of 30% of land managed for nature by 2030, the UK and devolved Governments must turn around the failing state of our protected areas for nature.

The UK Government’s figure of how much land is currently protected effectively for biodiversity has been over-estimated, according to conservation scientists.

In a new paper published today in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, scientists from the RSPB examined the area of land designated as protected in the UK and whether it is being managed effectively for nature conservation. The authors discovered that as little as 5% is actually being protected effectively for nature – significantly less than the UK Government’s reported figure of 28%.

Protected areas for nature are valuable refuges for many of our most vulnerable habitats and species and this paper comes at a crucial time for nature. In 2010, under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Governments from around the world agreed and committed to meet twenty global targets to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 (known as the ‘Aichi Targets’). A global stocktake in 2020 showed that they had collectively failed to meet these global ambitions and the RSPB’s A Lost Decade for Nature report, published exactly one year ago,  warned that the UK hadn’t taken sufficient action and had missed seventeen of these twenty targets.

One of the key global Aichi Targets celebrated by the UK Government as ‘achieved’, called for at least 17% of land important for biodiversity and ecosystem services to be effectively conserved, managed, ecologically representative, and well connected by 2020. Under the UK Government’s assessment for this target (in 2019), 28% of UK land was reportedly within protected areas for nature, apparently exceeding the 17% target.

However, the authors of the new paper The extent and effectiveness of Protected Areas in the UK, analysed all the UK’s land based protected areas and found that of the 28% of land reported to be protected for nature, only 11% is designated primarily for nature conservation and should therefore be included as part of the national contribution. 

The authors then analysed data from Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas for Conservation and Ramsar sites, which make up the vast majority of that 11%, and found that only around half of those sites are in good condition and meeting the nature objectives they were created for.

Of the remaining area that the UK Government included in their 28%, half is made up of large landscapes, such as  National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which are not designated primarily for nature conservation and, therefore, should arguably not currently be included as part of the national contribution.

Prof Richard Gregory, head of monitoring conservation science at the RSPB and senior author of the paper said: “We find that by focusing on area coverage as an indicator for Aichi Target 11, the UK appears to have inflated its contribution to the global protected area estate by the inclusion of large areas of land that are not managed primarily for nature conservation. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty were selected for a variety of reasons, including for wildlife, but these places are not currently set up to secure effective management for nature.

“We need to get this right. In one assessment the UK was recognised as the most nature-depleted country in the G7 and among the worst in this respect out of 240 countries and territories.”

Delayed because of Covid, next year, the world’s governments will come together to adopt the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the CBD, a framework which will set new global goals and targets to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and guide action for the next decade.

The UK Government has already made a welcome commitment to manage 30% of land for nature by 2030. However, if more emphasis is not placed on conserving the areas of greatest importance, and on the quality of habitats and  species within this 30% of land, we risk securing a global agreement that rewards the designation of large areas of land, some of limited importance to biodiversity, without the protection, management, and resources required to drive nature’s recovery within and beyond their boundaries.

Kate Jennings, head of UK protected areas and species policy said, “If the UK intends to fulfil its ambition of being ‘a global leader’ in the fight to save nature, the Governments of the UK must significantly increase the area of land protected, and effectively managed for nature, with a focus on quality as well as quantity. That means protecting the rest of the best places for nature and tackling the poor condition of over half of our existing protected sites.  Many of our National Parks and AONBs have a track record of delivering projects that make a real difference for nature.  But reform is needed to provide the powers, tools and resources to allow them to deliver on their huge potential and ambition for nature’s recovery. 

“The nature and climate crises are so intertwined that bold ambitions and targets must be put into legislation in order to restore nature. This is why the RSPB’s campaign Revive our World is calling for robust and legally binding targets and well-funded actions for nature and climate.”

Tagged with: Country: UK Topic: The RSPB's positions