A step forward in the journey towards 30by30 in England

Dr Daniela Russi, Prof Jane Hill, Prof Rick Stafford & Dr Joseph Bailey.

Defra has published its guidance on how England can deliver 30by30 on land. It is a welcome step in the right direction, but more work is needed to ensure that 30% of English land is effectively protected by 2030. 

At the end of last year, Defra published a guidance document on how England will deliver on the 30by30 target, a commitment made by the UK Government in 2020 to protect 30% of its land and sea by 2030. 

The new document includes a map with two area categories:  

  1. Those that can already count towards 30by30, including a) protected sites, irrespective of their condition (7.8% of land in England); and b) National Nature Reserves and areas of woodland under favourable management for biodiversity (0.7%).
  2. Those that can potentially contribute in the future (an additional 26.8%), including a) protected landscapes like National Parks and National Landscapes (previously termed Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty), which were originally designated to protect landscapes and cultural heritage, not biodiversity, and b) Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures (OECMs).  

We welcome this stepwise approach, as well as the recognition that many protected landscapes cannot currently contribute to the target in their entirety. More work is needed to make sure that only areas in protected landscapes and OECMs that deliver on biodiversity conservation count towards 30by30. It is interesting to note that the map shows a significant gap in Central/East Midlands, where new areas could be designated in the future. 

Protected sites that are currently in unfavourable condition count towards the target (the condition of protected sites is assessed by UK nature conservation bodies using the Common Standard Monitoring, and it can be assessed as favourable, unfavourable or destroyed). This is worrying because less than 40% of English Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are currently in favourable condition (it should also be noted that many sites have not been monitored recently, and their current condition is unknown). This should improve if the government delivers on its ambitions: the Environmental Improvement Plan’s targets commit the government to have 50% of SSSIs in England with actions on track to achieve favourable condition by 2028, and 75% of them in favourable condition by 2042. 

Landowners and land managers outside protected sites will be able to contribute to the 30by30 target on a voluntary basis. Defra’s guidance document sets the criteria for an area to count towards the target as: 

  1. Purpose: Biodiversity conservation needs to be a management objective (as is the case for protected sites) or the area should deliver secondary/ancillary biodiversity conservation (for OECMs).
  2. Protection: The area is protected from loss of or damage to biodiversity.
  3. Management: The area includes wildlife rich habitat and is effectively managed for the long term, with monitoring in place to assess progress. ‘Long term’ is defined in the document as ‘long enough to secure biodiversity outcomes – generally at least 20 years’. 

These criteria are broadly aligned with the criteria proposed by the BES report on protected areas. Besides those listed above, the BES report includes an additional criterion on inclusivity and engagement of stakeholders. This is addressed by Defra’s guidance document, which states the intention of adopting a collaborative, bottom-up approach to deliver on 30by30.  

Defra’s guidance relates to terrestrial protected areas, but 30by30 also covers marine protected areas (MPAs). While on paper 40% of English waters are protected with the majority of features in favourable condition, in practice, the picture isn’t so good. Protected features were initially designated in favourable condition, unless there was reason to assume otherwise, with most features not having sufficient data to assess them. Most sites are rarely monitored to assess the current condition of the features. The guidance does state that fisheries management measures will be in place by the end of 2024, and in some cases, this should be sufficient to ensure protection and recovery of protected features. However, other pressures also act on MPAs, especially in coastal areas where pollution from agriculture, for example, creates unfavourable conditions. Without some of these factors being addressed, claims that we have met the marine 30by30 target is unjustifiable.   

The publication of the criteria and the map are welcome progress towards 30by30. Much work still needs to be done to ensure Defra’s criteria are met in 30% of land and sea in England in just a few years’ time, as a recent review of UK protected areas and OECMs carried out by the IUCN UK Protected Areas Working Group shows. This will require strengthening environmental protection in the long term, investing in monitoring and employing a wide range of policy tools (including Environmental Land Management Schemes) to encourage a more sustainable use of land and sea to protect and enhance biodiversity.