Safeguarding the Jewels in the UK’s Biodiversity Crown

The investment needed to conserve biodiversity in the UK’s Overseas Territories (UKOTs) is three to five times higher than that spent by the UK Government currently to protect the endemic species and threatened habitats in these unique ecosystems. That is one of the points raised in a recent briefing note from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Invasive alien species, climate change, over-development and tourism, combined with patchy environmental governance are all contributing to the loss of biodiversity from these isolated island administrations.

The scope of the POSTnote is the 11 inhabited Overseas Territories. Here the OTs own governments are responsible for the protection and conservation of their natural environment. A 2012 UK Government White Paper described the OTs as having an ‘exceptionally rich and varied natural environment, containing an estimated 90 percent of the biodiversity found within the UK and Territories combined.’ The Environmental Audit Committee has also concluded that the largest single contribution the UK Government could make to halting global biodiversity loss would be to support to a greater extent the conservation of biodiversity in the UKOTs. Given that there are almost double the number of threatened species in the OTs as are found on the mainland UK (517 versus 194), and the large number of these that an endemic (found nowhere else), it is hard to justify why the UK Government spent only £2.97 million on biodiversity conservation in the UKOTs in 2012, compared with £495.4 million in 2011/12 in the UK.

Threats to biodiversity in the UKOTs vary with the geographical location of the territory, human population pressure and local environmental conditions. For example, in the Caribbean, which is more densely populated than OTs in some other areas, the major risks are unfettered development, with associated tourism, pollution and the over-abstraction of water. In addition, climate change and sea-level rise pose significant risks to habitats and species, causing the inundation of freshwaters, coastal erosion and ocean acidification, affecting corals. In contrast, in the less densely populated and more isolated South Atlantic, major threats are posed by invasive alien species; primarily rats, feral cats and plants. Projects run by NGOs, for example by the RSPB on the Pitcairn Islands, have been partially successful in removing plants and rats. When eradicated however it is vital that the UKOT governments have put in place biosecurity measures to prevent the re-introduction and re-establishment of these organisms.

Very few UKOTs have in place sufficient biocontrol measures, symptomatic of wider problems of environmental governance in these regions. In addition, the UK Government’s own lack of a strategic approach to environmental management in the UKOTs has been criticised by NGOs. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has overall responsibility for maintaining relationships with the UKOT governments. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible then for supporting biodiversity conservation in the UKOTs and supporting their governments in meeting obligations under international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). However, these agreements do not apply universally across the OTs (the CBD doesn’t apply to the Pitcairn Islands for example). The Environment Charters negotiated between the UK and UKOT governments set out the environmental responsibilities of the OTs but are not enforced and progress against these is not reported routinely by the UKOTs.

A ‘Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in the UKOTs’ does exist, drawn up by Defra, the FCO and Department for International Development (DfID). This provides the over-arching policy framework for action on the part of the UK Government, its agencies and the governments of the UKOTs. Yet this does not include priorities for conservation action, only headline biodiversity themes, as the actions are to be decided by the UKOT governments themselves. This lack of a strategic overview and failure to identify priorities for action hampers practical measures to tackle biodiversity loss in the OTs.

Practical measures can be difficult to implement in any case, due to a lack of baseline biodiversity data across the UKOTs. Most OTs lack basic survey data for some species. Often population-level data for vertebrates, such as seabirds, exists but that for plants and invertebrates is often based on presence/ absence only. Data for the marine environment is very patchy. Although there is no overview of biodiversity data gaps across the OTs, the FCO is currently funding the RSPB to conduct a ‘biodiversity risk assessment’ across the territories.

The POSTnote suggests that a central repository for biodiversity data from the UKOTs could be developed and maintained in the UK, along with a repository for samples. Alternatively, regional hubs or focal points holding the data and samples could be established for the OTs to access. However, the POSTnote makes clear, many OTs currently lack the capacity to access the data and to make use of it for practical conservation and management.

The acquisiton of data therefore needs to be accompanied by investment in developing the skills of individuals in the UKOTs, which may require long-term systematic support from the UK Government, possibly funding people to undertake Masters-level qualifications outside of the territories themselves.

Whilst there is no doubt that greater efforts are needed, a number of positive initiatives are underway. In addition to the eradication and other projects supported by the RSPB, efforts are underway to scope the feasibility of assessments similar to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) in a number of OTs. In additon, the UK Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) are currently involved in projects building capacity in the enforcement of fisheries and biocontrol in the UKOTs. Projects aimed at biodiversity conservation in the UKOTs can also apply to the ‘Darwin Plus’ (or ‘Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund‘) scheme, created by bringing together funds from the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP) and Darwin Initiative. Funding is also available to support UKOT conservation efforts through the EU BEST programme, although it is not certain whether this pilot funding mechanism will continue.

In its White Paper, the UK Government clearly acknowledges the value and importance of biodiversity in the UKOTs. As the POSTnote makes clear, this recognition now needs to be backed up by a strategic approach to biodiversity conservation in these under-resourced but internationally significant administrations, building on the positive efforts which are taking place on the part of the Government and charitable sector. Investment in the science base underpinning conservation and in the skills needed for effective terrestrial and marine management and enforcement could pay dividends for safeguarding these valuable natural assets.