The Pembrokeshire coastline, with grasses down to the sea

The UK Government says that it protects 26% of the UK's land already, but a report from the British Ecological Society disagrees over which areas are counted. Image © Ian Fletcher/Shutterstock

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UK set to miss pledge to protect 30% of territory by 2030

The UK's biodiversity can bounce back from historic lows – but only if it changes how it looks after remaining habitats.

Joining up protected areas, as well as involving scientists and local people in decisions, can ensure both people and nature thrive.  

There's a long way to go if we want to protect what's left of the UK's biodiversity.

A new report from the British Ecological Society warns that the UK is on track to miss a pledge to protect 30% of its land and sea by 2030, with some analyses warning just 5% of the nation's land is effectively protected.

The scientists behind the report have called for steps to make all protected areas work for nature, and promote biodiversity over other concerns.

Lead author Dr Joseph Bailey says, '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.

'The 30x30 target presents such a good opportunity and we can't let it pass us by. Climate change is here, and we must start now if we want our land and seas to deliver for nature.' 

A deer stands on a woodland track

Deer parks were some of the first protected areas, but were only for personal use. Image © Sebastien Coell/Shutterstock

How have UK habitats been protected in the past?

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with the legacy of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions having scarred the country's biodiversity.

Though declines are not as sharp as they once were, the UK's wildlife is still threatened in this century. While its biodiversity intactness index is likely to improve slightly without intervention in the next 30 years, the country will still rank in the bottom 10% globally.

Despite the history of protecting areas of the UK goes back centuries, these generally weren't for conservation purposes. For instance, royalty and aristocracy have historically set aside large areas of forest as hunting grounds, and large parks for keeping deer.

Even when some of the UK's first national parks were established in the 1950s, biodiversity still wasn't a priority. Whereas national parks in nations such as the USA are often government owned and managed, with limited human habitation, large parts of their British equivalents are often in private hands, with many towns and villages across the landscape.

Today, there are a variety of protected areas across the UK, with different levels of legal protection. As ecological and environmental issues have become more of a political priority, pledges to improve these areas and promote biodiversity culminated in the government signing up to the 30x30 pledge in 2020, which commits the UK to protect 30% of its terrestrial and marine area within the decade.

While government figures currently state that around 28% of UK land and 38% of the seas are protected, the scientists argue that many of these areas aren't meeting the required standard. That said, there is the potential to turn them around.

Co-author Prof Jane Hill says, '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.' 

A view of mountain lakes and hills in Snowdonia

National parks can be included in the pledge, provided they put biodiversity first. Image © Lukassek/Shutterstock

How can UK habitats be better protected?

The report recommends that protected habitats under the 30x30 pledge need to put biodiversity first and foremost. They should be able to deliver for nature in the long term, with steps taken to address any potential threats. 

To achieve this, a wide range of different habitat types need to be protected, with many existing areas requiring stronger protections than they currently have. National parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty could be included in this, if they are reformed to prioritise biodiversity.

Overall, the report recommends that around 16% of strictly designated protected areas should form the core network, with the remaining areas protecting specific habitats or providing connectivity. 

Connections between sites which allow wildlife to move are important to link up the relatively disparate network of protected areas in the UK. This could consist of physical corridors, stepping stones between them, or by improvements to non-protected land.

'We need to make sure landscapes are suitable for species to move between highly protected areas,' Joseph says. 'This could be done with wildlife corridors such as hedgerows. Protected areas simply won't work if we only have desolate wastelands between them.'

This network then needs to be managed and monitored effectively to ensure that a recovery is underway. This includes setting realistic targets, with the suggestion that greater legal powers are given to national park authorities and local authorities to ensure they can aid in this.

The authors also advocate for an increase in funding to local and national organisations to support efforts to protect these areas, as well as bringing in as wide a range of stakeholders as possible.

The UK Government is currently consulting on a nature recovery green paper, which aims to lay out the ways it will protect and restore biodiversity across the country in the coming decade. This includes a roadmap to achieve its 30% protection pledge.

Other measures include a new system of protection for areas with unique or important biodiversity, as well as new frameworks to make use of local and scientific expertise to form part of conservation decisions. The government also hopes to increase funding by opening up investment by scaling up private sector investment.

Tony Juniper, the Chair of Natural England, says that the UK 'can and must do better' to protect and restore its habitats.

He adds, 'Ambitious targets to halt the decline in species abundance and to increase the area of land and sea protected for nature, backed by a range of new policies to meet them, means that we are in a strong position to shift up a gear - not only protecting what's left but also to recover some of what has been lost.'

With everyone's help, there is every possibility that the historic declines in the UK's biodiversity could begin to be reversed.