It's a good motto for 2014.  Trouble is, it has been the mantra of conservation ever since my colleague, Robin Wynde, first coined it nearly fifteen years ago.  And, for my first (proper) musing of 2014, I want to focus on the progress we have made "protecting the best".

I will not dwell on the obvious tardiness in securing a network of marine protected areas - this will, of course, be a feature of the year ahead.  Instead, I want to remain on land.

It is appalling that, nearly twenty years on from the start of a campaign to protect England's finest wildlife sites - Sites of Special Scientific Interest - only 35% are in good nick, classified as being in favourable condition.   This matters because these are the places that, by definition, are special, provide refugia for important wildlife populations and, remembering Sir John Lawton's own motto of bigger, better and more joined up, their protection is vital if we want to help wildlife adapt to changing environmental conditions - especially from climate change.  

And so, in 2014 we must resolve not lose sight of unfinished business in protecting the wildlife jewels in the country's crown.

In the late 1990s, the campaign for wildlife law reform was born on the back of anger about the ongoing loss and damage to SSSIs from inappropriate development and changes to farming practices..  Friends of the Earth helped build a powerful coalition of organisations including the RSPB to make the case for improved protection and management of SSSIs.  Tony Blair's Labour Government introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 and established a target for 95% of the sites to be in favourable condition by 2010.  But they offered a get out of jail free card which allowed sites which were unfavourable but recovering to qualify - as little as a site with a management agreement written was sufficient.

English Nature and its successor, Natural England, did a fine job in methodically assessing the condition of all our SSSIs and establishing management plans to improve the wildlife.  Defra went about finding remedies to address the threats and major landowners shared responsibility for sorting out their own sites.

But, it is plain that collective efforts have been inadequate.  In 2011, in its white paper, Defra set a new target for 50% of SSSIs to be in favourable condition by 2020.  To have a chance of meeting this target smart use will need to be made of the finite agri-environment pot when the new scheme is finalised this year and, I think that it is time to start using the full power of the legislation which permits issuing management notices if sites are being neglected.  To date, I am not aware of any being given.

This is bad news for wildlife and bad for all of us.  The value of the free services (flood protection, clean drinking water, carbon storage, recreation etc) that well managed wildlife sites offer are meant to outweigh the costs of their management by 8 to 1.   

So, a common feature conversations throughout 2014 must be a focus on how we work with people to "protect the best".  Only then can we be serious about restoring biodiversity in this country. 

On Monday, I shall outline the RSPB's approach to "protecting the best" in the uplands.

  • Sounds to me Martin, that we need to resurrect that strong and forceful coalition of the 1990s. Only then will there may be a chance of making this distinctly unsympathetic Government (with a very few individual exceptions) take the loss of biodiversity and the degrading of our SSSIs seriously. It would seem appropriate timing as well, since over this year the political parties will be positioning themselves for the General Election in the first half of 2015, so this year will be the time to make them pay attention.