Effective protected areas have the potential to be the beating heart of the UK government’s approach to the recovery of nature, says Joseph Bailey in his conclusion to the BES report.

blue butterflies on a wild meadow flower
Plebejus argus blue butterflies kakteen/Shutterstock

Nature, climate, and society are intimately connected. The United Kingdom’s (UK’s) policies and legislation therefore need to address all three of these with equal urgency for UK biodiversity to have resilience and adaptability in the face
of global environmental challenges.

The natural world provides humans with important ecosystem services that we need not only to thrive, but survive1. Resilient and healthy natural systems provide the foundation for a resilient and healthy society.

Protected areas part of a larger approach

Effective protected areas (PAs) have the potential to be the beating heart of the government’s approach to the recovery of nature in the UK. These must support and be supported by Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) and sustainably managed land and seas, connected by a well-designed network of wildlife habitat corridors and stepping-stones. All of these components are needed: PAs are crucial but can only be part of a larger approach.

Some of the PA shortcomings highlighted in this report are well known (e.g. see the 2010 ‘Making Space for Nature’ report on England’s wildlife sites2) and result from nature not being consistently prioritised, monitored, and managed.

The UK has a heavily degraded natural environment

The UK’s PAs face pressures within, and outside their boundaries from activities such as damaging fishing practices in marine protected areas (MPAs), habitat conversion or loss, housing developments, intensive and unsustainable land use, and pollution, leading to declining ecological conditions that prevent an area from achieving positive outcomes for nature.

Areas are not wholly designed for biodiversity

Despite excellent efforts locally, the UK has a heavily degraded natural environment and a portfolio of designated sites that does not consistently – and was not wholly designed to – prioritise biodiversity.

On land, much of the UK’s designated land covers protected landscapes (including National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty), which do not effectively deliver for nature because of their other priorities3. There are substantial opportunities to reform existing governance structures in order to ensure that these protected landscapes are managed effectively for nature and people. Such reforms must include having nature experts on the boards that manage protected landscapes. Otherwise, these sizable areas will remain unable to support the recovery of nature.

Many designated sites that do prioritise nature (e.g. Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are not in a favourable condition, despite widespread efforts to protect features of interest (e.g. a habitat or species). This is often due to external pressures, highlighting the necessity for more integrated approaches for ensuring nature’s recovery on land and in the sea.

30×30 is the opportunity

The 30×30 agenda presents an opportunity to redefine our approach to area-based conservation and deliver a system that is tailored to not just protecting rare or vulnerable species, but supports the restoration of nature more widely and that can adapt to, and be resilient to, long-term change.

Effective protection and recovery of nature should be a prerequisite for a site to contribute to the 30×30 target. A significant amount of work is still needed to get close to a meaningful 30% by 2030, which will require swift and substantial actions as part of a transformative change to the way we safeguard the UK’s nature for future generations.

The 30×30 agenda presents an opportunity to redefine our approach

Central to this is ensuring effective and representative PAs, but also that PAs are supported by a wider network of OECMs and well managed non-protected land and seas, which will still make up the majority of our landscapes and seascapes even if 30% is reached.

PAs and OECMs, underpinned by appropriate policies in the wider landscape and seascape, must deliver for nature in the long term (inclusive of the living and non-living components; biodiversity and geodiversity), build ecological resilience and be in a favourable or recovering condition, and subject to coordinated monitoring and management (inclusive of incentives and penalties to enforce protection).

PAs should represent all habitat types, restore habitats as part of an ecosystem-wide approach, manage existing PAs for achieving favourable or recovering status, and ensure connectivity by using OECMs and other spaces between PAs effectively.

All these approaches should proactively engage with people and businesses who live and work in these places.

The UK’s approach must ensure biodiversity is prioritised in the extensive protected landscapes that are National Parks and AONBs, as well as smaller designated sites, so that all these spaces contribute effectively towards the 30% target.

There is some information on feature condition and biodiversity trends in PAs, but there are also substantial evidence gaps because of a lack of resources for management and monitoring. Thus, the condition of many PAs, and how they are performing for nature relative to unprotected areas, is not known. Management and setting of conservation goals relies on effective monitoring, so that conservation goals can be adaptive and fit for purpose in response to a changing landscape or seascape.

Significant funding needed

Overall, these requirements necessitate empowered government departments and statutory agencies that have sufficient funding so that they can take a leadership role, accept accountability for monitoring and management, and enforce the law to protect biodiversity.

Management, incentives, and penalties to limit pressures must be undertaken in consultation with stakeholders and as part of a governance system integrating top-down and bottom-up approaches towards achieving conservation goals and restoring nature.

As we scan the horizon with optimism, the UK has an excellent opportunity to demonstrate political will, leadership, and commitment to protect nature and deliver an integrated nature recovery network for a healthy and sustainable society.

Joseph Bailey
York St John University


1 Stafford, R., Chamberlain, B., Clavey, L., Gillingham, P.K., McKain, S., Morecroft, M.D., Morrison-Bell, C. and Watts, O. (Eds.), 2021. Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change in the UK: A Report by the British Ecological Society. London, UK. [online] [Accessed 03 March 2022].

2 Lawton, J.H., Brotherton, P.N.M., Brown, V.K., Elphick, C., Fitter, A.H., Forshaw, J., Haddow, R.W., Hilborne, S., Leafe, R.N., Mace, G.M., Southgate, M.P., Sutherland, W.J., Tew, T.E., Varley, J., and Wynne, G.R. 2010. Making Space for Nature: A Review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. Report to Defra. [Accessed 07 March 2022].

3 Cunningham, C.A., Crick, H.Q., Morecroft, M.D., Thomas, C.D. and Beale, C.M., 2021. Translating area-based conservation pledges into efficient biodiversity protection outcomes. Communications biology, 4(1), pp.1-5.