UK Biodiversity Indicators 2014: The good, the bad, and the uncertain

4th December saw the release of the 2014 UK Biodiversity Indicators, designed to summarise and communicate broad trends about the health of the nation’s species, habitats and ecosystems. The indicators are used to report the UK’s progress towards the Aichi targets, agreed as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Twenty-four indicators have been developed, comprised of a total of 47 measures assessed where possible on both the long-term (since measurements began), and on the short-term (over the last five years). The indicators are grouped according to the five strategic Aichi targets, namely:

  • A: Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society.
  • B: Reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use.
  • C: Improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.
  • D: Enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • E: Enhance implementation through planning, knowledge management and capacity building.

So how are we doing? Overall, the indicators paint a very mixed picture. The positive news is that several measures show sustained improvement over the long-term: more land is being managed under agri-environment schemes, pressure from air pollution is reducing, the total area of protected areas on land and at sea has grown, plant genetic resource collections have improved and more fisheries are in sustainable management. However, other measures are much less encouraging: the prevalence of marine, freshwater and land-based invasive species is increasing; the status of UK priority species has deteriorated in the long-term; and populations of woodland, farmland and wetland birds are all exhibiting long-term declines.

What conclusions can we draw from such variable trends? Firstly, at appears that on the whole we are seeing greater improvement in indicators that measure a reduction in the pressures on biodiversity (Aichi Target B), than in those that improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity (Aichi Target C). For instance, while two of the strongest positive trends are in the amount of land covered by agri-environment schemes, and the total area of protected areas, to what extent do these changes in land management translate into quantifiable positive impacts on biodiversity? A number of reviews have suggested that the evidence for the positive impact of agri-environment schemes on biodiversity is mixed. Similarly, whilst the increase in the total area of protected areas is clearly a positive step, interventions such as the Lawton Report have argued that a landscape approach extending beyond protected areas to create a coherent ecological network is required to achieve a step-change in biodiversity conservation.

A second issue that stands out from the report is the lack of sufficiently robust data for many of the indicators. While the report encouragingly shows a significant increase in the number of biological records being submitted to the National Biodiversity Network database, many indicators remain in development. For example, the measure of the status of pollinating insects remains as an “experimental, interim statistic”, there is no suitable measure for assessing short-term trends in insect populations, and the data for plant species richness in the wider countryside are deemed “too out-of-date to be fit for purpose”. Improved monitoring of our natural environment is essential, and initiatives such as the recently launched National Pollinator Strategy, which has monitoring at its core, are a welcome step in the right direction. Yet as the recent Scottish Biodiversity Conference highlighted, effectively integrating monitoring schemes to track change across the environment is a difficult, potentially resource-intensive challenge.

Finally, if we are to achieve significant and sustained improvement in the state of UK biodiversity, then it is perhaps another set of indicators still under development which are of most importance. Aichi Target A seeks to “address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society”, and to this end, indicators are under development to assess public awareness, understanding and action; the integration of the value of biodiversity into decision making, and the integration of biodiversity considerations into business activity. Here, the development of natural capital accounting and reporting, and its integration across government and business, could have a real impact.

This year the release of the Biodiversity Indicators came just a day after the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget Statement. How different would the figures look if the state of nature and the state of the economy were reported as one and the same?