Favourable Conservation Status (FCS) is a concept enshrined in international, European and national nature protection laws. Head of Sites Conservation Policy, Kate Jennings explains the idea of identifying what good looks like for habitats and species, and what conservation efforts be aiming to achieve.

It is the overall objective for migratory species under the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals as well as the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. When the UK leaves the EU, this will also be confirmed as an objective for our mostly highly protected wildlife sites, Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation.

Legal definition

The current clearest definition of FCS comes from the EU Habitats Directive which states that:

  • conservation status of a species means the sum of the influences acting on the species concerned that may affect the long-term distribution and abundance of its populations’ and is ‘favourable’ when:
    • population…data indicate that it is maintaining itself on a long-term basis as a viable component of its natural habitats’;
    • ‘the natural range is neither being reduced nor is likely to be reduced for the foreseeable future;, and
    • there is, and will probably continue to be, a sufficiently large habitat to maintain its populations on a long-term basis’.

The equivalent definition for habitats says that favourable conservation status will be achieved when:

  • ‘its natural range and areas it covers within that range are stable or increasing, and
  • the specific structure and functions which are necessary for its long-term maintenance exist and are likely to continue to exist for the foreseeable future, and
  • the conservation status of its typical species is favourable’

So, to translate from legalise, FCS for species means a healthy, self-sustaining population, found throughout its natural range and with enough good quality habitat to keep it that way. For habitats, it means that they are in good condition across their natural range, are supporting all the species that they should, and are likely to stay that way.

But how to work out what that means for a given species or habitat?

As we are painfully aware, nature has been declining at an alarming rate and for a very long time – with declines often having started long before we started collecting robust data on populations, distributions and habitat quality. So it’s hard to know what good once looked like before the effects of the drivers of biodiversity loss – from agricultural intensification and industrialisation to invasive species and pollution. 

What’s more, given the future challenges that habitats and species will face – some known like climate change, others doubtless as yet unknown – what do we need to do so that species and habitats not only get into good nick – but are healthy and robust enough to stay that way??

Little surprise then that the task of quantifying what would constitute FCS for individual species and habitat has spent over 30 years languishing in the ‘too difficult’ box….

So why lift the lid now?

The failure to quantify FCS for habitat and species means that we don’t have overall objectives for what we are trying to achieve for habitats and species. (How many Bitterns would we need (as a minimum) before we could say with confidence that the population would be able to maintain itself in the long term, what is the current natural range they should fill and how much habitat would we need across that range to support that population?) We also don’t have a framework against which to assess how the many individual decisions, made on a case by case basis, act together to influence the fate of our most important habitats and species.

If you add up protected areas and species protection and subtract the impacts of development and licensed killing of a given species – what is the combined effect on how that species is doing?

For species this means there is a lack of:

  • established population level targets or milestones against which to assess the success (or otherwise) of conservation action.
  • quantifiable conservation objectives for individual protected areas, which combine to ensure they make a sufficient contribution to conservation of the species at national level.
  • adequate, quantifiable assessment of the implications of multiple development, licensing and conservation action decisions on the conservation status of national populations
  • any framework for taking decisions in the face of climate change to ensure that, as species’ populations and distributions change, they are restored to or maintained at FCS.

So at the RSPB we decided that the FCS nettle needed to be grasped – and we are not the only ones. The European Commission has been working on how to define FCS, and closer to home the UK statutory nature conservation agencies have developed a common position on FCS and Natural England are trialling an approach to the definition of FCS for a range of habitats and species in England, including for a range of bird species.

For our part, for the last few years we have been working to develop a method for defining Favourable Conservation Status for all UK breeding birds, in a way that makes efficient use of the available data, is scientifically robust and defensible (essential if this is to be used to guide future decision making) and builds in the need to factor into any quantified definitions, the resilience that will be needed if bird populations are to not only survive, but also to thrive, in an uncertain (but certainly climatically very different) future. 

This isn’t quick, it isn’t easy and there are no probably no perfect answers, but after several years of slaving over just some of the ingredients for defining FCS (population and range) by some of the RSPB’s finest scientific minds (of which I am not one, in case you’re wondering) ) , we are starting to get some answers.

Yesterday saw the publication of a scientific paper on the first of those – a method for working out the minimum population size required for UK breeding bird species to ensure that they are sufficiently large not only to survive, but also to thrive such that they can withstand future shocks, such as climate change or other as yet unforeseen impacts. You can read more about the scientific thinking that went behind this paper on our blog here.

This is not a recipe for defining FCS – it’s not even a whole ingredient as it sets a minimum level required to sustain resilient populations in the long term. The recipe won’t work until that is mixed with other considerations including

  • the current status of the population (even if some populations are big enough now – if they are declining they won’t stay that way for long so couldn’t be categorised as favourable)
  • what the range for those species should be and how big the population needs to be to fill that (in many cases probably much bigger)
  • and the quantity and quality of habitat required to sustain that number across that range.

 But it’s a start and after 30 years sitting in that ‘too difficult box’ a start feels like something to celebrate!