This post is by Kate Jennings, head of site conservation and species policy at the RSPB.
Tomorrow the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal (COP15) begins, where nations across the planet will come together to agree a new set of global targets for nature.
True to its stated appetite to be a “world leader for nature” the UK government has already committed to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and protect 30 per cent of its land and sea for nature’s recovery by 2030 (’30×30’). This is set to be a headline target of the new global agreement at COP15. That is, of course, a good thing. But, in one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth, and with a long history of successive government failures, the question is whether this time the UK means it, and whether there will be real action to match the rhetoric.
Targets and laws protecting our nature are at risk
In England, this concern was reinforced when, in March, Defra published the draft targets to be set under the 2021 Environment Act. While those included a deeply flawed target to reverse the decline in species abundance and one on Marine Protected Areas, there was none for protected areas on land.
This calls into question Westminster’s credibility on 30×30 and species abundance commitments ahead of COP15 and has been further exacerbated by the government’s failure to meet the 31 October 2022 legal deadline to lay the targets in parliament.
This failure has, unsurprisingly, drawn strong criticism from many quarters, including the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and a formal complaint to the OEP from environmental and health NGOs including the Greener UK coalition and the RSPB. There have been calls for targets to be published as a matter of urgency, and to use the delay in the meantime to address the critical shortcomings of the draft targets. Most significantly the species abundance target should genuinely drive recovery and the absence of a protected areas target on land needs to be corrected. To make matters worse, through the Retained EU Law Bill (central to the government’s recent attack on nature), we risk losing or weakening a wide range of laws which protect our nature, air, water, rivers and seas, alongside those that protect workers’ rights, food and drinking water standards, health and safety. These laws include the Habitats Regulations which are the strongest we have to look after the best places for nature across the UK.
New compelling evidence shows why action is needed now
Two new peer reviewed scientific papers, both published today, provide further, very timely evidence of the critical role of protected areas, both within and beyond their boundaries.
The first, published jointly by RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in the journal Animal Conservation, used data from the annual Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) across Britain to test whether there was a link between abundance and legal protections. The results, as we describe below, highlight why protected sites are so vital. They also demonstrate the added value provided by the UK Habitats Regulations (which cover Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)), compared to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) which have lower levels of legal protection.
Many more birds at risk benefit from strong legal protections
We found that the birds in most trouble do better in SSSIs than the wider countryside, but they do even better still in SPAs and SACs. We also found that there are more of the UK’s most at risk birds close to protected sites than in the wider landscape, potentially suggesting that the sites have a spill over effect, boosting populations beyond their boundaries. What’s significant is that this is the case right across the UK’s most threatened birds, not just for those species specifically protected at the sites.
There’s an increasing body of evidence about both the value of protected areas and the benefits of higher levels of protection. But, until now, it has been harder to determine whether they support species diversity and abundance beyond their boundaries. This new evidence makes it clear that they are essential not only to protect the best, but also in helping to restore the rest.
Our findings are reinforced by another independent study by the BTO in the journal Nature ecology and evolution. This combines data from three UK-wide citizen science schemes and confirms that places with more protected land are home to more species and higher numbers of birds. Importantly, it begins to examine why this is the case, reporting that breeding success was greater in protected areas for some species.
Both studies found that the beneficial effects of protection were not restricted to the birds for which the sites had been designated, but also applied to other rare, declining and habitat-specialist species.
This new body of evidence firmly supports arguments made by the RSPB, Wildlife and Countryside Link, the UK IUCN National Committee’s Protected Areas Working Group and the OEP for the inclusion of a target for protected sites on land under the Environment Act. It highlights the folly of the failure to do so. The papers also show why the strongest levels of protection (provided by the Habitats Regulations) are so important. The first paper rightly reiterates that around half of SPAs and SACs in the UK are not in favourable condition and shows clear evidence for the greater conservation benefits of improving protected area management.
As we go into COP15, the government needs to stop stalling and prove it’s the world leader on nature it says it is.