Protecting landscapes is not the same as protecting nature

This post is by Jo Smith, CEO of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and Kate Jennings, head of site conservation policy at the RSPB.

The prime minister’s recent promise to protect 30 per cent of the UK’s land by 2030 is welcome as a vitally important contribution to the debate around reversing the loss of biodiversity and tackling the nature and climate crises (although it must have raised an eyebrow or two in the devolved administrations as the prime minister can only make this commitment for England).

What raised even more eyebrows was the prime ministers’ claim that “National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected areas currently comprise approximately 26 per cent of land in England”. This view, which assumes that protected landscapes (National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)), are protected for nature, was also adopted in the UK government’s final report on its performance against the Aichi targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity. This claimed that 28 per cent of the UK’s land was protected for nature.  However, as the RSPB’s Lost decade for nature report and the Wildlife Trusts have recently made clear this assumption is, at best, disingenuous. 

National Parks and AONBs offer no extra wildlife protections
While the purpose of these landscape designations includes the conservation of wildlife (in the case of National Parks) and to conserve and enhance natural beauty (in the case of AoNBs) neither designation confers any additional legal protection for wildlife. The much less extensive Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Ramsar sites do give such protection, but when the extent to which these areas are being effectively managed for nature is taken into account, the true extent of land protected and well managed for nature in the UK is currently only around five per cent.  

This lack of meaningful protection for wildlife in protected landscapes is borne out in the dismal state of nature within many of them. Analyses by the RSPB and Friends of the Earth highlight that, in England, the condition of SSSIs within protected landscapes is actually worse than that of SSSIs outside these designations. And this is particularly the case for National Parks where recent data suggests 26 per cent of SSSIs inside them are in favourable condition compared to 39 per cent outside. There is a high degree of variation between individual landscapes, but there is a clear pattern showing that those in the uplands are in a much worse state than those in the lowlands.

In 2018, the government commissioned a review of protected landscapes in England, conducted by an independent panel, headed by the journalist Julian Glover. In response to a call for evidence, the message was clear that “people and organisations agreed that our landscapes should do more for nature”. Published in September 2019, the review highlighted that both National Parks and AONBs could – and should – be at the forefront of our national response to the nature and climate crises. It also highlighted that National Park and AONB boards “are deeply unrepresentative of England’s diverse communities” and that certain groups (including those from lower socioeconomic groups and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities) are especially disconnected from these places. It concluded that: “The way we protect and improve our landscapes needs to change radically…. If their natural beauty is to be in a better condition 70 years from today, even better to look at, far more biodiverse, and alive with people from all backgrounds and parts of the country, they cannot carry on as they do now”.

A gift to government
With broad stakeholder support for its conclusions, this should have been a gift to government and acting on it should be an urgent priority for action in the run up to the forthcoming global conferences on climate and biodiversity. In the year that has passed since the review was published, its importance and relevance has been emphasised. The Covid 19 pandemic, whose source was in wildlife destruction, has illustrated how our connection to a healthy environment is vital to both our physical and mental health, and indeed to our very survival. And the Black Lives Matter protests have simultaneously highlighted the ongoing inequalities in our society.

Protected landscapes can’t be in the 30 per cent target without reform
That’s why, yesterday, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, along with a diverse coalition of other NGOs, wrote to the Environment Secretary George Eustice to call for more action to transform England’s National Parks and AONBs for the benefit of wildlife, climate and people.

Fundamental change will require, amongst other things, new legislation, but there are also simple, low cost interventions that can be delivered in the short term to reflect the urgent need for action and to capitalise on the momentum provided by the widespread support for a green recovery. 

The simple fact is that we cannot afford not to act on the findings of the Landscapes review. Our natural world, our climate and our wellbeing are all at stake. It is time for the government and those running our protected landscapes to step up. Until and unless they do, our protected landscapes cannot be counted towards the ‘30 per cent by 2030’ target. But, without them, achieving it looks impossible.

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