Systematically review and critically evaluate the current protection measures available for nature conservation in the UK
The World Conservation Strategy in 1980 defined conservation as the ‘management of the human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations’ (Gilpin,2000:54). There are four country nature conservation agencies in the UK. They are Natural England, the Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales and the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside (Northern Ireland).
These four country agencies deliver their statutory responsibilities via the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). Nature conservation strategies in the UK aim to conserve biodiversity and geodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems (CBD,1992 cited in Duffy,2007) Biodiversity has social, ethical, cultural, and economic values (McNeely et al, 1990; Harrison, 2009).
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It also provides invaluable ecosystem services like regulation of climate, purification of water, air quality regulation, nutrient recycling, soil formation, waste decomposition etc. (Myers, 1996; Vincent, 2006; Harrison, 2009; European Commission, 2010). Geodiversity refers to the range of landforms, soil types, rocks, mineral elements, fossils, along with the natural processes that determine the morphology of the landscape. Geodiversity in UK is considered to be quite unique considering the size of UK (Vincent, 2006).
Geodiversity is considered important not only because it forms a part of the UK’s geological heritage, but also because it plays a vital role in safe guarding the nation’s valued habitats and landscapes. Geodiversity can also provide the opportunity to study evidence of past environmental change and evolution, which will be useful in predicting and planning for future environmental change. The UK adheres to international conventions pertaining to nature conservation.
In addition to the international conventions, the UK also falls under the umbrella of the EC Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (79/409/EEC) and the EC Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora (92/43/EEC), known as the ‘Bird’s Directive’ and ‘Habitat’s Directive’ respectively. Within the UK, there are -legislative approaches to nature conservation. The Legislative approaches to nature conservation are achieved through various Acts including the following: 1. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 2.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 3. The Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 4. The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 5. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 Protection of important sites for nature conservation is also achieved by the designation of ‘protected areas’ (see table 1). A protected area is defined as ‘an area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means’ (IUCN, 2004 cited in Bishop et al, 1995: 291).
The UK also has non-legislative approaches to nature conservation, which are mainly controlled by local authorities and designations used include Local Nature Reserves (LNR) and Local Sites. The UK also has a Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) and a Geodiversity Action Plan (UKGAP) which are initiatives to help in the conservation of biodiversity and geodiversity respectively. Table 1: Protected areas in the UK Source of data: JNCC, 2010 The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949 comprises six parts and two schedules.
It brought about legislation to establish National Nature Reserves and Local Nature Reserves (NNLs and LNRs respectively). The Country conservation agencies are responsible for declaring NNRs while local authorities are responsible for designating LNRs. Byelaws are then enacted to protect NNRs or NLRs from public damage once they are designated. The nature conservation agency is also required by the Act to inform local authorities of the location of sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) on the basis of the plant, animal or geomorphological features of the sites.
As at March 2004, the total area covered by NNRs was already quite substantial (233,800 hectares) while that of LNRs was relatively modest (45,400 hectares). NNRs are either under the direct management of the country conservation agency or an authorised body. NNR designations are considered to have been quite effective with regard to nature conservation but the management costs are high (Vincent, 2006) and the main benefits of LNR to nature conservation are weighted towards its educational purposes.
According to Vincent (2006), there is a lack of systematic and comparative data about the effectiveness of both NNR and LNR legislation. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 consolidates and amends existing national legislation to implement the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) and Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds (Birds Directive) in Great Britain. Various amendments have occurred since its original enactment (JNCC, 2010). The Act comprises four Parts and 17 Schedules.
It has provisions covering the protection of some wildlife species, the countryside, National Parks, the designation of protected areas, and the public rights of way. According to Vincent (2006), the Act seems to have been very effective with regard to the protection of wild birds and their eggs from the general public. It has also proved instrumental in the recovery of some species which were declining due to exploitation and persecution. The Act has also helped curtail the effects of persistent habitat loss.
A criticism of the Act however is that, accidental injury, killing or destruction (of wild birds, eggs, bird nests or other protected plant and animal species) is not effectively covered by the legislation (Vincent, 2006). Therefore there is a ‘loophole’ regarding activities that are carried out despite the knowledge that such accidents may occur. Also the public is ignorant of the plant and animal species which are protected and hence protection is likely to be effective mainly in cases where stakeholder groups (e. g. animal groups) are involved (Vincent, 2006).
The second part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act also introduced legislation to establish Marine Nature Reserves (MNRs). There is however a difficulty in establishing and protecting MNRs (Vincent, 2006). Practical enforcement has also proved problematic. Despite the fact that the legislation has been beneficial to areas designated as MNRs, it is largely considered a failure (Cole-King, 1995; Vincent, 2006) in the broader view of marine nature conservation. This is because only a limited portion of the sea is covered, coupled with what is deemed an inadequate level of protection (Vincent, 2006).
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW Act 2000) comprises five Parts and 16 Schedules. It applies only to England and Wales. The Act provides a new right of public access on foot to certain types of land which have particular vegetation types and contains provisions for extending the right to coastal land. The Act introduces new measures that improve the management and protection for SSSI. It introduces amendments that improve the legal protection for threatened species. It also introduces measures for improved management of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) (JNCC, 2010).
The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 comprises five Parts and seven Schedules, the Act places duties on public bodies with regard to the conservation of biodiversity. It also provides increased protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and consolidates wildlife enforcement legislation (JNCC, 2010). The UK Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 comprises 11 parts and 22 schedules. The Act mainly affects England and Wales. The Act provides the legal mechanism to help protect the biodiversity and productivity of oceans and seas.
The Act introduces the designation of Marine Conservation Zone (MCZs) which is intended to help achieve international, EU and local marine nature conservation goals (Rees et al, 2010). Generally, there is a difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of conservation measures adopted over the past decades in the UK. In majority of the cases, there is a difficulty in ascertaining or estimating what would have happened in the absence of the measures and also, there is a deficiency of statistical data pertaining to the current nature conservation measures (Gaston et al. 2006; Vincent, 2006). There is no doubt however that the legislations have been beneficial in many ways (e. g. the protection of certain habitats and organisms like wild bird species, bats, whales etc. ). The protected area approach is considered as being central to the conservation of biodiversity and geodiversity (Gaston et al. , 2006). Its importance has been acknowledged in various international conferences and reports concerning the environment (Bishop et al. , 1995).
The UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre declared that there are more than 100,000 protected areas worldwide representing about 11. 5% of the total land surface of the globe (IUCN Vth World Parks Congress, 2003). Benefits of the protected areas include safeguarding places of outstanding natural wealth, beauty or cultural significance. They also provide for scientific, educational, recreational and spiritual needs of people (Bishop et al. , 1995; Vincent, 2006). Though these are world views, they apply in the UK context as well since the public is encouraged to visit most parks and reserves.
The main environmental benefit of protected areas is the maintenance of ecosystems, species diversity, genetic variation and ecological processes which are all essential for the sustenance of life (Bishop et al, 2005). General problems of the protected areas approach identified during the IVth World Parks Congress (1992) include the tendency to treat protected areas as ‘islands’ set apart from the surrounding areas; the tendency to see protected areas as an alternative to, rather than one element within a national strategy for conservation and the failure to integrate protected areas requirements into policies for the sectors (e. . agriculture, tourism, transport) which affect them.
Other problems which are applicable within the UK context include financial constraints, inadequate knowledge and limited staff knowledge and expertise (Bishop et al, 1995). The UK currently has more than 10,000 protected areas (Gaston et al, 2006). Non-governmental agencies (NGOs) are very important in the management of the protected areas. Organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Woodland Trust and the Wildlife trust, collectively manage more than 3500 protected areas (Gaston et al, 2006).
In critically evaluating the protected area approach within the UK, the following must be determined: 1. Whether protected areas are meeting the nature conservation goals for which they were established and 2. whether the goals which are being met or the integrity of the protected areas are sustainable. To determine whether the protected area approach meets the UK’s nature conservation goals, there is the need for effective site monitoring and collating of data (in relation to targets or goals) since the early periods of the site designations.
Unfortunately such comprehensive data is lacking (Gaston et al, 2006; Vincent, 2006). In support of this view, a workshop comprising of stakeholders and experts to consider as a case study, the current state of knowledge and the (ecological) effectiveness of the UK’s protected areas, came to the conclusion that the effectiveness of the designated sites had hardly been assessed (Gaston et al, 2006). The most comprehensive assessment of the UK’s protected areas ever attempted is documented in a report published by the JNCC.
The report contains results covering monitoring of the protected areas over a 6-year period (Williams, 2006). The report however covers only 57% of the overall number of features set apart for their value in nature conservation. The report is useful for determining though to a limited extent, the effectiveness of the protected areas within the UK. There are also a few literature that focus on particular designation types or conservation goals (Jackson et al, 2009; Hussain et al. 2010; Rees et al, 2010) which also provide some information about the effectives or limitations of some of the protected areas in the UK.
However, with particular credit to the 6 year report, the UK has the most comprehensive data concerning the effectiveness of their protected areas than anywhere else in the European Union and arguably the world (Gaston et al, 2006; Williams, 2006). It should be noted that in the 6 year report was not an assessment of the site itself, but the feature (e. g. habitat, species or geomorphological feature) for which the site was intended to conserve.
Multiple features were assessed individually even if they were on the same site. Conservation objectives for the assessment were developed by identifying the key attributes which make up or support the feature (e. g. extent, quality, supporting processes), and setting targets for them. Each attribute was then measured and compared against the target value set. If all the targets were met, the feature was recorded as being in a ‘favourable ‘condition. If the targets failed to be met, the feature was recorded as being in an ‘unfavourable’ condition.
If the feature was lost or unrecoverable, it was recorded as ‘destroyed’. In summary, 56% of features were assessed as being in the ‘favourable’ condition category; 43% in the ‘unfavourable’ condition category; with the remaining 1% assessed as being either partially or wholly destroyed. The report however indicated that there were considerable variation within the recorded figures, particularly for species and habitats. According to the report, more remains to be done to improve the effectiveness of protected areas (Williams, 2006).
Of the 43% unfavourable features, 16% were in the ‘unfavourable-recovering’ category, and 11% in the ‘unfavourable-declining’ category hence according to the report, 72% of features reported on are either in a favourable condition, or were recovering towards favourable condition. This is quite an optimistic view since there is a shortage of reliable data to guarantee that the sites in the ‘favourable’ conditions will remain in those states and that those under ‘unfavourable-recovering’ categories will recover fully.
Clearly, it is evident that designation alone is not sufficient to safeguard values or features (Patry et al, 2005). The absence of comprehensive data is a serious threat to the protected areas. This is because, it is only the availability of comprehensive data which will allow managers to learn from experience and adopt or develop more efficient practices. Unfortunately, as it stands now, the limited data and knowledge may mean that many protected areas are declining in integrity and at risk of losing the features which are being conserved (Patry et al, 2005).
However, the monitoring effort and the publication of the 6 year report is a landmark step for nature conservation in the UK and will lead to better management and improvement in the effectiveness of the protected areas. There seems to be a growing consensus in literature that the goals which are being met or the integrity of the protected areas are largely not currently sustainable and that more needs to be done (Gaston et al, 2006; Vincent, 2006; Prosser et al, 2010).
The major criticism is that, currently most protected areas are managed as ‘islands’ separate from the surrounding landscape (Bishop et al, 1995; Rossler, 2005; Prosser et al, 2010). The argument is that, in most cases the feature being conserved (e. g. threatened plant species) may be dependent on other factors in the surrounding landscape (Jackson et al, 2009) which are usually not considered. Also, the indigenous people have a stake in the long-term sustainability of the protected areas but their views and interests are usually not considered (Bishop et al, 1995; Rossler, 2005).
The suggested solutions include the adoption of a ‘dual conservation’ system in the UK which ensures the abundance (or maintenance) of important factors outside the protected area zones (Jackson et al, 2009); the moving away from the ‘island’ mentality and linking the sites with the surrounding landscape (Rossler, 2005) and most popularly, adopting the ecosystem approach (Laffoley et al, 2004; Rossler, 2005; Rees, 2010). The ecosystem approach is to ensure that environmental, economic and social sustainability factors are given equal consideration during any decision-making process (Laffoley et al, 2004).
Fortunately, the UK is keen on developing good mechanisms such as these and many initiatives are in the pipeline (Gaston et al, 2006). Already, the UK under the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) hopes to apply the ecosystem approach in designating Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) (Rees et al, 2010). A major challenge however for the protected area approach is how the anticipated impact of factors like atmospheric emissions (e. g. itrogen pollutants), isostatic adjustments of the British landmass and most notably climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity and geodiversity (Robinson et al, 2005; Vincent, 2006; Proser, 2010) can be mitigated.
In conclusion, it cannot be determined categorically as at now whether the current protection measures for nature conservation in the UK have been largely successful or not, because of insufficient data. There are variable levels of achievements and failures brought about by the legislations and also variable results concerning the effectiveness of protected areas.
Though it is evident that a lot more needs to be done, it cannot be denied that the current measures have already had positive results in various ways with regard to nature conservation. Considering the current trend of strengthening and clarifying legislations, attempts at better monitoring standards and initiatives to improve management practices of protected areas, the UK is definitely in the right direction and arguably well ahead of many parts of the world in this regard.