In the run up to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UK Government has pledged to protect 30% of land by 2030. However, in a new study published today, RSPB scientists argue that as little as 5% may currently be effectively protected for nature.

Next year, governments of the world will come together to adopt the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Much like the Paris Agreement, with its clear statement on limiting carbon emissions, this framework will establish a set of targets for preserving the diversity of life on Earth.

This critical task for the future of global biodiversity comes in the wake of a somewhat tepid start. In 2010, the CBD set out twenty targets for protecting and conserving natural systems to be met by 2020, known as the ‘Aichi Targets’. The RSPB’s A Lost Decade for Nature report published exactly one year ago, warned that the UK hadn’t taken sufficient action and had missed seventeen of these twenty targets.

One of the key global Aichi Targets celebrated by the UK Government as ‘achieved’ was Aichi Target 11, which calls for “at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes” by 2020.

Under the UK Government’s assessment of this target, 28% of the UK is reportedly protected for nature, apparently exceeding the 17% target. However, a new study led by authors from the RSPB examines the area of land protected in the UK and whether this land is effectively managed for nature conservation. Their findings suggest as little as 5% may be effectively managed with nature conservation as the priority management objective.

The UK’s protected areas

The protected area network in the UK is a complex arrangement of overlapping sites with varying levels of protection. The authors of the RSPB study overlaid all of the UK’s terrestrial protected areas to reveal the proportion of the country designated under different management categories according to the IUCN Protected Area Categories System.

A UK map showing categories of protected areas as per IUCN guidelines

They found that only around 11% of the UK is designated under the IUCN’s top protected area management categories (Categories Ia-IV).

Sites in Category Ia ‘Strict Nature Reserves’ are where human visitation and use are strictly controlled and include mostly inaccessible islands such as Coquet Island, Grassholm Island and Priest Island. At the other end of the spectrum, protected areas in IUCN Category V are known as ‘Protected Landscapes’, and include the UK’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

Of the 28% of land reported to be protected for nature, nearly half - 14% - is made up of these Category V landscapes, created as a result of human and nature interactions over time, and none of which are designated specifically for nature conservation. This in itself may be cause for concern – while the protected area network is naturally made up of a number of designations within different management categories, this suggests an over-reliance on these expansive Category V sites to meet international targets; sites that may not benefit wildlife.

Coquet island is one of the islands strictly protected for nature under the IUCN categories

The IUCN Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories says that ‘Only those areas where the main objective is conserving nature can be considered protected areas; this can include many areas with other goals as well, at the same level, but in the case of conflict, nature conservation will be the priority’. By including the National Parks, AONBs and similar in its protected area reporting, the government is effectively implying that nature conservation is the priority in these areas.

Quantity over quality

The authors then analysed data from Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas, and Special Areas for Conservation, sites which are arguably areas with higher levels of protection, and found that only around half of sites are in ‘favourable’ condition. 

Therefore, the study concludes that as little as 5% of the UK may be effectively protected for nature. Approaching the CBD Conference of the Parties in Kunming, China, there is an ambition within the post 2020 framework to manage 30% of UK land and seas for nature by 2030. However, if more emphasis is not placed on effectively conserving the sites of greatest importance to biodiversity, we risk rewarding the designation of large areas of land with little value to the conservation of biodiversity.

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