This post is by Isobel Mercer, RSPB’s senior policy officer, policy & advocacy Scotland.
Our most important habitats for wildlife are found in Protected Areas. These special places, such as the carbon-rich peatlands of the Flow Country, the noisy seabird cliffs at Flamborough Head, the shores of Strangford Lough, which is home to some 70,000 wintering birds, and the ancient Celtic Rainforests of West Wales, are responsible for safeguarding nature across the UK.
A new international target to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s land and sea by 2030 (‘30×30’) is set to be agreed later this year at the UN Biodiversity Conference in October in Kunming (COP15), with the UK, Scottish, and governments having already committed to meet this target. The Northern Irish and, we understand, Welsh Governments have also endorsed the target, although no formal ministerial statement has been made in Wales.
These commitments are welcome but, as the RSPB’s Lost decade for nature report has made clear, around only ten per cent of UK land is legally protected against damaging activities and the health of nature in these protected areas has declined across all four countries of the UK.
If the target of 30×30 is to result in true recovery of biodiversity, then all four governments must raise their game. This means making sure existing sites are well managed and increasing the areas that receive protection. Good monitoring must play a vital role in achieving this ambition.
Protected areas are sites that are selected and protected by law because of the important species, habitats and geological features they support. In the UK, the designations that currently provide this level of protection are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), known as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) in Northern Ireland, Special Protection Areas (SPAs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), and Ramsar sites. The health, or condition, of the features they protect is the measure of their success.
Protected areas alone can’t halt and reverse the loss of nature
We must restore and connect important habitats and allow species to move throughout our landscapes, protecting our best remaining wildlife sites is crucial. Protected areas in either good condition or showing signs of recovery must be at the heart of wider nature networks across the UK.
The starting point for helping nature to thrive in protected areas must be to properly monitor their current state, including what threatens the habitats and species, what management is happening and whether it is working. This information creates a baseline for understanding whether, over time, the condition of these sites is getting better or worse, and to adjust how they are managed accordingly.
However, after a decade of cuts to the statutory nature conservation organisations who have responsibility for monitoring protected areas (Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and NatureScot), funding for monitoring remains insufficient. Consequently, our understanding of the state of protected areas is poor, and current monitoring approaches are not telling us what we need to know.
There have been consistently low levels of monitoring in Wales and Northern Ireland over the past 30 years, and in Scotland and England it has steadily decreased over time. For example, the Minister’s answer to a recent Parliamentary Question revealed that an astonishing 78 per cent of England’s SSSIs have not been visited to determine their condition in the last six years. In Wales, a new evaluation by NRW shows that in around half of cases, no assessment of SSSI feature condition can be made due to the lack of data available. Protected areas will continue to suffer if the UK administrations do not invest in understanding the state of nature.
Robust monitoring should underpin plans to meet targets
All four governments should urgently scale up funding for protected areas to support the robust monitoring systems that are needed to restore their wildlife.
How often protected areas are monitored should be judged on the ecology and sensitivity of the wildlife they support. The only country that currently does this is Scotland.
How monitoring is carried out is also critical for the quality of information gathered. Common standards exist for monitoring protected areas, but they have been applied very differently. For example, Natural England monitors SSSIs by assessing habitats and species in different areas on the site known as ‘units’ whereas, in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the species and habitats are assessed across the whole site.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. While it is important to have a good understanding of the overall state of species and habitats on a site, localised data is also needed to identify what is causing poor condition and so that landowners and managers know how the wildlife on their land is faring and what they need to do to improve its condition.
A hybrid approach is best, where data is gathered at different scales across a protected area. This helps to understand where site management needs to change and who is responsible.
Monitoring is currently being reviewed in England, Scotland and Wales. To contribute to this, the RSPB is developing a set of principles for a robust system which would apply across all four countries of the UK. We will be sharing these with governments, agencies, land managers and stakeholders across the UK to start a more open discussion about how protected areas should be monitored.
In the run up to the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), we are calling on all four governments in the UK to take a lead and set out ambitious plans to protect and effectively manage 30 per cent of our land for nature by 2030. This must include radically scaling up, improving and properly funding the monitoring and management of protected areas.