I am away with the family for a few days over half term, but have lined up a couple of guest blogs this week.  The first is from my colleague Kate Jennings who leads our work on protected areas.

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Special Protection Areas (SPAs), created under the EU Birds Directive and now enshrined in laws across the UK, protect some of our very best sites for birds across all four countries of the UK, from the Somerset Levels and Carmarthen Bay to the Lewis Peatlands and Carlingford Lough. Together with Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) which provide an equivalent level of protection for other (non avian) species and for habitats, they have long formed the cornerstone of attempts across the UK to protect and restore biodiversity and to meet our national and international commitments for nature.

And they work – research by RSPB scientists has shown that the birds for which SPAs are designated have fared better than other bird species, and have done best in those countries which have had SPAs for longer and which have more and bigger SPAs.  Further research by our team has also demonstrated that this positive effect has been sustained during a period in which climate change has significantly affected bird populations.

However, as this month’s State of Nature report makes clear, whatever we have been doing to try to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity is nothing like enough – it is estimated that the total number of breeding birds in the UK fell by 44 million between 1967 and 2009. 

So at a time when the nature and climate crises are high on the political agenda, when governments across the UK are making bold claims about their intentions to improve protection for nature, and as a global consensus is emerging around the need for a substantial increase in the extent of land and seas protected and well managed for nature (with a likely new target of 30% by 2030) ahead of next year’s global conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity, doing more of what we know works seems like a total no-brainer.

Here the UK has a head start, for when it comes to SPAs we know where more is needed.

On the 20th October 2016 the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) published the first phase of a review of the UK’s network of terrestrial Special Protection Areas (SPAs). This review - believed to be the world’s first review of an entire national protected area network against an explicit baseline – was prepared by a Scientific Working Group convened by UK Government to provide advice on the protection of the most important sites for birds in the UK, which includes representatives of the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Scottish Environment LINK, as well as representatives of the UK, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh governments and their statutory nature conservation bodies.

While the report did recognise some welcome progress since the previous review which was published in 2001, it also highlighted just how much remains to be done to deliver a complete SPA network across the UK:

  • There are seven species for which SPAs are required but for which no sites have yet been protected (including spoonbill, white tailed eagle and common crane);

  • The current suite of SPAs is considered insufficient for 87 species including curlews, hen harriers, bitterns, choughs, and nightjars;

  • A review of SPA provision at sea is required for at least 49 species from puffin and shag to Balearic shearwater and velvet scoter;
  • The boundaries of existing sites for 17 species need to be reviewed to ensure they provide for the needs of the species they protect (for example to include both feeding areas and breeding/roosting sites);
  • Reviews of management of existing SPA for 15 species, including Bewick’s swans, are required because of declines in their population within these critical sites;
  • There is a critical need to continue support for national surveillance programmes (e.g. the Wetland Bird Survey (‘WeBS’) run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and funded by JNCC, the RSPB and the BTO and the need to address significant data gaps for some groups of species.

Damningly, the report also highlighted that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland many of the recommendations from the previous review in 2001 remain unimplemented.

Since the report was published, we know that the second phase of the review has also been completed, with reports advising on how and where the gaps in the network should be filled having been submitted to and accepted by the UK and devolved administrations.  And yet, three years after the Phase 1 report was published, those second phase reports have not been published and we have not seen any action to address these gaps on the ground. 

Recent letters sent by the RSPB in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to each of the UK and devolved administrations seeking a firm commitment to the publication of the Phase 2 reports and a clear timetable for implementation of the review have, to date, gone unanswered, making this a very unhappy anniversary.

Protected areas in general – and SPAs in particular – are just one of the vital mechanisms available to tackle the nature crisis.  But as we know they work, we know where the gaps are and governments across the UK already have the advice they need to fix them, action on implementing the UK SPA Review feels like a good litmus test of the extent to which fine words are likely to be matched by meaningful action for nature – and so far it’s not looking good…

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