Protecting our most threatened and vulnerable: What does the future hold for the Wildlife and Countryside Act?

Every five years, the lists of plant and animal species that are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) in England, Scotland and Wales are reviewed. JNCC has proposed that the criteria used for this are changed, and the BES signed an open letter regarding potential negative effects of these alterations. Becky Turner explains this process, our concerns, and the JNCC response.

Becky Turner

The 2019 State of Nature Report indicated that over 40% wildlife has disappeared from the British countryside and that 15% of our species are now threatened with extinction. This has mainly been driven by pollution, disease, persecution, and habitat loss and degradation. Protecting threatened wildlife and understanding the ecological and social context of declines, vital to addressing the biodiversity crisis; a priority recognised in UK conservation policy.

Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981)

The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (as amended) is a key piece of conservation legislation in England, Scotland and Wales. It protects a selection of threatened animals, plants, and their habitats against harm and disturbance, and is pivotal for the three nations meeting key policy targets (see a Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) summary here).

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan for England pledges to recover threatened and iconic species, reduce the impact of wildlife disease and prevent human-induced loss of species. Two of the key objectives in The Nature Recovery Plan for Wales are to ‘Safeguard species and habitats of principal importance and improve their management’ and ‘Tackle key pressures on species and habitats’. Also, a key message from the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy is that ‘More concentrated work is needed on key species and habitats to target threatened native species, species conflicts, invasive non-native species, and potential reintroductions’. Achieving these conservation targets will require evidence-based decision-making for biodiversity, including the species protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Quinquennial Review

Every five years, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and NatureScot review the eligibility criteria and the level of protection given to species listed under Schedules 5 (animals) and 8 (plants). This process, the ‘Quinquennial Review’ (QQR), is coordinated by the JNCC. “Endangerment” is a key consideration for listing species under the Act, but this can be interpreted in different ways. Previously, some Schedule 5 species have been included due to experts’ concerns over population declines or other threats. Under the new proposals from the latest (7th) QQR, species that are IUCN Red Listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or otherwise subject to international obligations would be automatically eligible for listing on the Schedules. Species Red Listed as Vulnerable to extinction would not automatically be eligible. This means that some nationally threatened species may not receive legal protection. Several key stakeholders have publicly criticised the new proposals and participated in a consultation phase of the QQR. Why is the BES concerned by the proposed changes to the Act?

1) IUCN Red Listing

The IUCN Red List is a renowned method for assessing a species global extinction risk and can be used to flag species needing protection. However, the IUCN guidance advises that automatic use of Red Listing in policy contexts is “inappropriate”. Red Listing relies on in-depth information about a species geographic range, sizes of populations and rates of declines to classify threatened species (Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable). Dramatic declines in the abundance and range of species can occur without them immediately becoming classified into the higher Red List threat categories. Using the IUCN Red List outside of its intended context could therefore result in misleading assumptions about how a species is faring in different regions of the country.

2) Nationally Threatened and Vulnerable Species

Knowing how wildlife is faring is difficult when monitoring and analysis is lacking, and so reports of declines and a species’ need for protection often rely on expert opinion. Under the new proposals, eight species of British amphibians and reptiles would not automatically re-qualify for listing on Schedule 5 of the Act, which would remove the regulation on trade, harm and intentional killing currently afforded to several of these species.

National budget cuts constraining resource and the elusive nature of amphibians and reptiles has made it difficult to assess their conservation status in Great Britain. We know that they play important roles in terrestrial and freshwater communities but they have highly sensitive ecologies. Their small size, low mobility and inability generate their own body temperature means that most have specific habitat requirements for feeding, growing, breeding and hiding from predators. Populations in Great Britain are also typically small and can be isolated due to habitat fragmentation, making them vulnerable to sudden threats.

Current evidence suggests that disease, urbanisation and climate change threaten several populations. There have been national declines of the common toad and the adder, with a recent national Red Listing process classifying these species as “Near Threatened” and “Vulnerable” in Great Britain. Some widely held concerns, therefore, are that the removal of eight species from Schedule 5 could directly expose several amphibians and reptiles to numerous human-induced threats such as development, potentially driving further declines. Also, the risk of persecution for species such as the adder may increase (a threat highlighted at the 2019 Vanishing Viper conference), and no regulation on trade and exploitation could amplify disease transmission in amphibians (featured in a recent campaign by Froglife). Human-induced loss of threatened species and failure to manage the impact of disease under these scenarios would be a clear diversion from policy goals.

Going Forward                                                  

An engaged QQR consultation phase with key stakeholders brought to light important evidence and concerns relating to a variety of taxa. The JNCC have since said that they may be able to advise governments on adding and retaining several species on the Schedules, including the amphibians and reptiles, but we are waiting to hear officially which species this will include. In an open letter, several signatories restated their concerns on using the IUCN Red Listing in this policy context, including the BES.

The JNCC have reiterated that the new system aims to prioritise our most threatened species for listing and allow other species to be added where there is a clear case to do so. This will require transparent criteria and evidence-based decision making, accounting for species status and threats within relevant ecological, social and geographic contexts, now and into the future. Understanding the conservation needs of a species and preventing wildlife from becoming threatened depends on effective monitoring and analysis, underpinned by adequate political and financial support. The JNCC have invited key stakeholders, including the BES, to participate in discussions on how this can be best achieved going forward.