Landscape at Haweswater nature reserve

Landscape at Haweswater nature reserve. Credit: Michael Harvey

How much of England is protected and managed for nature, and how much is needed to restore our natural world?

These two questions are at the heart of a new study published today. In short, the study finds the UK Government has over-estimated the area of land protected and managed for nature. In England this area needs to be urgently expanded and better managed if we are to see our depleted wildlife recover.

Let’s start with how much land nature needs. There is widespread agreement that to restore habitats and species, and the life-support systems they provide to humans, 30% of the world’s land must be protected and effectively managed for nature by 2030 – often referred to as ‘30 by 30’.

Governments from around the world are expected to agree this global target next year under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in what is being described as the nature equivalent of the Paris Climate Agreement. Our Government has already committed to achieving this.

So how much land is already protected and effectively managed for nature in England? And how far do we have to go to get to 30 by 30?

The Prime Minister has claimed that 26% of England is already protected for nature and has pledged to protect another 4% by 2030. You might be asking why there is a nature and climate emergency if we are already on track to achieving the 30% target.

This is where the new study comes in. In contrast to the Prime Minister’s claim, it found that as little as 5% of the UK’s land area may be protected and effectively managed for nature. In England this figure drops to around 3%. A long way from 30 by 30.

The authors estimated this by calculating the area of land that is currently protected primarily for nature. This is land that is designated, for example, as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). These designations cover around 8% of England. Natural England report that only 38% of SSSIs are in good condition. So only around 3% of England is protected primarily for nature and in good condition for nature, which is the ultimate test of whether it is effectively managed for nature.

So how can the Government claim that the figure is 26%? This figure is what the Government claims is protected, not what is being effectively managed for nature. So it includes all SSSIs, even the 62% that are in poor condition. Significantly stepping up work to monitor and improve the condition of SSSIs to meet the Government’s own target of restoring 75% to good condition will help increase the area of land that can count towards 30 by 30. As will expanding the area covered by these designations, for example by implementing the recommendations of reviews of England’s Special Protection Areas for birds. In doing so, the Government must build on and strengthen England’s existing protections for nature, for example the Habitats Regulations.

The Government’s figure also includes England’s protected landscapes – our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – which are designated for their natural beauty, which includes wildlife. The study questions whether these areas should count automatically towards 30 by 30.

Protected landscapes have a critical role to play for nature recovery and their authorities have shown strong leadership and have an impressive record of delivering for nature individually and collectively. We recently featured a series of examples on our RSPB England blog and there are many more.

Sarah Fowler, CEO of the Peak District National Park Authority and Lead National Park Officer on Nature Recovery, underlines National Parks’ commitment: “Together we have to explore every avenue to address the joint threats to biodiversity and the climate through landscapes that are protected. National Parks are committed to discovering and sharing innovative new approaches that can have big impacts. For instance we’ve identified £250million of shovel ready nature restoration projects within National Parks and have created a way for companies to invest in these as part of their carbon offsetting strategies”. This is only part of National Parks’ plans for nature and climate.

Simon Amstutz, the Manager of the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB, says that the AONB “recognise that more needs to be done for nature recovery and initiatives such as the proposal to Government from the AONB Network, known as the Colchester Declaration, to address the twin concerns of wildlife decline and impacts of climate change could go a long way to address these issues. AONBs have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to work in partnership with public, private and third sector organisations, such as the RSPB, to secure funding to deliver projects to address wildlife decline and help Government meet its 30 by 30 aspirations”.

As this demonstrates, many National Parks and AONBs are making their scant resources and powers go a long way to deliver for nature. But this is not happening at the pace and scale needed to tackle the nature and climate emergency because the authorities working within these landscapes have not been equipped by the Government to do this.

Change is needed for our protected landscapes to contribute to the 30 by 30 target and to help them drive progress on other targets under the Environment Bill, including to halt species declines. Many of these changes were set out in the 2019 Glover Review and the key ones are listed here, for example to purposes, duties, governance and resources. The Government’s plan to implement and build on this review is long overdue.

Without making changes and without securing the protection and effective management of wildlife habitats inside protected landscapes, both inside and outside SSSIs, simply expanding and designating new landscapes is missing the point.  

The authors of today’s study conclude that when it comes to protecting and managing land for nature, quality matters as much as quantity. The onus is now on the UK Government to set out how England will make the leap from 3% to 30% and how it will ensure that our protected sites and landscapes are transformed for nature’s recovery.