BES informs House of Lords’ inquiry on reaching the 30×30 target

This week Prof. Rick Stafford and Prof. Jane Hill summarised the key findings of the BES report on protected areas for the House of Lords’ Environment and Climate Change Committee.

photo of hills in the lake district

The House of Lords’ Environment and Climate Change Committee has launched an inquiry into protected areas to explore the current state of protected areas and how effective the various designations are at helping to protect nature.

In the first evidence session, BES Policy Committee Chair Professor Rick Stafford and BES Trustee Professor Jane Hill were brilliant at summarising the key points made in our report on protected areas. Rick was the lead Steering Group member of the report and Jane was one of the senior authors.

In 2019 the UK Government pledged to protect 30% of it sea, and in 2020 it made the same commitment, known as 30×30, for its land. 30×30 is also one of the key targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed at COP15.

The 30×30 target is potentially a great opportunity to ramp up protection for the most valuable of our habitats. However, we are still far off the target. Statutory protected sites, like for example Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which were designed to protect nature, cover only 11% of UK land, and only about half of them are in favourable condition.

Landscape designations like National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) cover 17% of UK land. They have great potential to contribute to nature recovery, but, as highlighted by the Glover Review, they are not adequately funded, and in general they were not designated to protect nature. A study published in 2018 found that SSSIs outside England’s National Parks and AONBs were more likely to be in favourable condition than those inside.

On the marine side, 38% of UK seas are formally designated, but bottom trawling is taking place in most offshore MPAs and many of them do not even have a management plan. The Government’s announcement of bylaws to ban bottom trawling in 4 out of the 76 UK offshore marine protected areas is a welcome first step, but we urgently need more such initiatives.

How can we reach the 30×30 target in a meaningful way?

  1. The network of terrestrial protected areas needs to be completed and connectivity needs to be ensured to make species more resilient, especially against climate change. More Highly Protected Marine Areas (HMPAs) need to be created. The recent designation of three HPMAs in England points to the right direction, but progress has been too little and too slow (the original proposal was for a designation of 5 new HMPAs, which would have covered just 0.53% of English seas). The ongoing consultation on this topic in Scotland suggests a much braver approach, as the objective is to have 10% of Scottish sea covered by HMPAs.
  2. Environmental protection needs to be strengthened and maintained in the long term. If the protected area system is to be reformed in England, the protection granted to national designations like SSSIs should be consistent with or stronger than the protection of EU-derived designations like SACs and SPAs.
  3. Monitoring needs to be improved, which will require more funding and better coordination/consistency across the four nations.
  4. Landscape designations do have a great potential to contribute to nature recovery due to their large coverage, existing governance structures, and good relationships with local communities and land managers. Portions of landscape designations could count towards the target in the next few years, if they undergo a transformational change to repurpose them to ensure nature’s recovery and are adequately funded. Expanding the amount of high quality semi-natural habitats and setting aside some land for nature recovery, as the Exmoor National Park has already done, will be key.
  5. Some Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs), like for example land owned by environmental NGOs, Local Wildlife Sites and National Nature Reserves, could potentially contribute to the target, provided that they ensure long term protection to nature.
  6. Local communities need to be engaged, to ensure buy-in and benefits for them.

All this is very much in line with what environmental NGOs have been saying for a long time (see for example, Wildlife and Countryside Link’s reports on protected areas and the Habitats Regulations).

In a nutshell: if properly managed, funded and protected in the long term, protected areas will play a key role in halting nature decline in the UK, besides providing a wide range of benefits to all of us. The target has already been agreed: now implementation will be key.

For more information, download the BES report on protected areas and nature recovery.