This post is by Professor Sir John Lawton CBE FRS, chair of the Making space for nature panel.
“There are twenty-seven ancient cathedrals in England. Imagine the outrage that would have ensued in this country if over the last 100 years, twelve had been partly demolished, nine substantially demolished, and three completely obliterated; only three would remain in good condition. Yet this is precisely what has happened to many of England’s finest wildlife sites.”
These words opened Making space for nature, a report I chaired for the government back in 2010. As I reflected last year, a decade on, England’s finest wildlife sites (known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or SSSIs) are still being neglected.
Only a minority of SSSIs are in good condition
Little effort has been put in to monitor and restore them. Less than a quarter of them have been visited to assess their condition in the last six years and the limited data that is available shows that they are in no better condition than a decade ago. Only 38 per cent of these places – our cathedrals of nature – are in good condition. The crucial role they could play in recovering nature, and all the benefits nature provides us, has still not been secured.
However, the new Environment Act, together with a forthcoming global target to protect and effectively manage 30 per cent of land for biodiversity by 2030, gives me hope that the next decade can be different. Amongst other things, the act requires the secretary of state to set long term legally binding environmental targets, including for biodiversity. A government policy paper last year showed that an Environment Act target for the condition of SSSIs was under consideration. A few months later, Lord Goldsmith informed parliament that the government proposes to set a target under the act to improve the condition of SSSIs.
Four reasons why we need a target for SSSIs
This is encouraging and has the potential to be transformative for nature’s recovery. There are four reasons why I would urge the government to set an ambitious statutory target for improving the condition of England’s SSSIs.
1. To achieve a resilient ecological network that will halt and reverse species loss
Making space for nature made it clear that, of all the actions needed to create a resilient ecological network throughout England, the most impactful one will always be to make existing wildlife sites better. The report concluded that, if we do not achieve this, all other efforts will be depressingly pointless. Expanding and connecting habitats is much needed, but first we need high quality sites with thriving wildlife populations that can be extended and joined up.
The Environment Act has already set a target to halt species loss by 2030. The government cannot hope to achieve that without setting a supporting statutory target to drive improvements in the state of SSSIs. These sites will be the backbone of an ecological network that will allow species to increase their abundance and expand their range, colonising new areas of habitat and the wider countryside, and to help species adapt to a changing climate but, crucially, only if the condition of these sites is markedly improved.
2. To achieve a meaningful 30 x 30
Next year, countries are expected to adopt a UN-backed target to protect and effectively manage 30 per cent of land for biodiversity by 2030 (30 x 30). In England, the current area of SSSIs could contribute almost a third of this but only if they are “effectively managed”, the test of which must be that monitoring shows they are in good condition or are making satisfactory progress with their recovery to good condition. So setting a statutory target to improve the condition of these sites will be integral to achieving the global 30 x 30 target.
3. To achieve measurable outcomes for biodiversity, the wider environment and people
The government has rightly stated that it wants targets to be based on environmental outcomes as these allow for flexibility and innovation in how they are met. There can be few more vital environmental outcomes to measure than restoring our most important places for wildlife. Achieving this target would also have spin off benefits that would deliver other parts of the Government’s agenda beyond biodiversity, for example improving water, air quality and carbon storage. With 39,000 hectares of England’s SSSIs lying in, or near, urban areas, their restoration will also boost access to nature, supporting our health and wellbeing.
4. Non-statutory targets have not worked
The government has previously set non-statutory targets to improve SSSI condition but these have not driven the changes needed. A legally binding target would be different. It would catalyse the necessary action and long term commitment from the key players in the public and private sectors to put in place the right management and monitoring and to tackle the main reasons for poor condition. It would ensure that these precious gems of England’s biodiversity take their rightful place at the heart of efforts to combat the nature and climate emergency.
The Environment Act has given the government a golden opportunity to make good on its promise of leaving the environment in a better state than it found it. But the act is only the first step. A crucial next step is to bring forward the legally binding targets that will drive changes to make this a reality. This must include an ambitious target to restore our finest wildlife sites and, if it does, there will be genuine cause for optimism.