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‘Radical, transformative changes’ needed to protect UK’s natural habitats

Image credit: Nils Leonhardt | Unsplash

The UK government’s commitment to protect 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 offers opportunities to revitalise protected areas to aid in the recovery of natural habitats, the British Ecological Society (BES) has said.

But in its Protected Areas and Nature Recovery report, it warned that this ambitious pledge will fail if the UK does not make “radical, transformative changes”.

While 27 per cent of UK land and 38 per cent of UK seas already enjoy some level of environmental protection, the report finds that many protected areas are not delivering for nature and are in poor ecological condition.

It therefore urges caution over what should count towards the government’s 2030 targets and provides recommendations for what protected areas, and the surrounding environment, need in order to be effective in restoring nature.

Dr Joseph Bailey at York St John University and lead author of the report said: “Designating an area of land or sea does not automatically make it an effective protected area.

“Designation is simply the first step in a long process towards ensuring that long-term ecological benefits are delivered for nature and people. To be effective, a protected area needs adequate implementation, enforcement, monitoring, and long-term protection.

“Climate change is here, and we must start now if we want our land and seas to deliver for nature.”

National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected areas currently make up 27 per cent of UK land. However, the report finds that the proportion of land that is effectively protected for nature could be as low as 5 per cent.

Many protected landscapes, such as National Parks, do not specifically prioritise biodiversity and were not established or funded to do so.

Professor Jane Hill at the University of York and author of the report said: “The evidence is that most protected landscapes are not delivering for nature and only a low percentage are in good ecological condition. However, because there is existing governance in place managing these landscapes, they have great potential to be adapted to improve how they deliver for nature.

“With the right support and willingness, nature can recover and thrive in almost any landscape.”

On paper, marine environments seem better protected than UK landscapes with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) already exceeding the government’s target and covering 38 per cent of UK seas. However, many of these areas have no current management measures in place and most areas closed to fishing are in UK overseas territories.

While regulations to control fishing are in place in some areas, across the entire UK only three small MPAs ban all fishing activity. Furthermore, damaging fishing activity from large bottom trawlers is still unregulated in many MPAs across the UK.

Rick Stafford of Bournemouth University and author of the report said: “The proposal to protect 30 per cent of UK seas is very welcome, but we need effective management measures in place in MPAs which will protect wildlife and benefit local coastal communities.

“The lack of comprehensive management or enforcement means that the majority are failing to deliver for nature and bring the full range of biodiversity benefits they otherwise could.”

The report calls for a series of measures including long-term, evidence-based approaches to protecting natural habitats, better governance over protected areas and monitoring in place to ensure that the long-term management of protected areas meets conservation goals.

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