The Nature Recovery Green Paper, which Defra published on 16 March 2022, includes sections on consolidation and rationalisation of species protection and the creation of a new tiered approach to species protection in England. As a champion and leader for conservation and research for some of England key mammal species, PTES has a significant interest in the consultation and the eventual outcomes of any policy changes that will:
- affect species protection measures,
- impact which species are protected and determine which threats species are protected from
- identify how recovery of species whose conservation status is less than favourable will be achieved and maintained,
- identify which areas are given protection and targeted for recovery purposes.
PTES is keen to work closely with Defra and its agencies to ensure the above are achieved in a way that will improve species protection in England, reduce any chances of further population losses and pave the way for recovery. The acknowledgement that a new nature recovery initiative is needed and the recognition of the declining status of many of the UK’s species is a welcome start. The fact that so many of our native plants and animals urgently need effective, well-financed intervention is obvious. However, we regard the proposals made in the Green Paper to be inadequate for addressing the biodiversity crisis in the UK.
The Green Paper should set out measures to halt and begin to reverse nature’s decline by 2030. Stronger protection for sites and species is essential. The proposals focus too much on simplifying process at the expense of the ecological needs of the species involved, potentially wasting valuable, limited funds, and risking making the situation worse. They do not address the scale of the challenge or offer additional measures for nature’s recovery. To make a genuine difference for nature’s recovery, we need a fundamental shift from a system designed to manage decline to one that enables nature’s recovery with a joined-up plan for how that recovery is to be achieved.
In line with our partners with the Wildlife and Countryside Link, we call for the following key measures from the Government to prevent further declines in the state of our protected areas, species’ diversity and abundance, and wider biodiversity, and to set our nature on the road to recovery:
- Provide much better safeguards for our protected areas through a levelling up of our nature designations to stop any harmful practices, including off-site and cumulative impacts, preventing any damaging activities or development that would stop a site being brought into favourable condition
- Ensure 30×30 is achieved quickly, efficiently and effectively as a meaningful network
- Create a new planning designation of Nature Recovery Areas to build on existing protection with a presumption against any change to land use that stops or impedes nature recovery in the area
- Use Favourable Conservation Status measures effectively and strategically, for all species or relevant species groups, to drive action in recovery whilst maintaining the essential aspects of the UK’s most effective conservation laws, The Conservation of Habitats and Species (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Achieving Favourable Conservation Status (FCS) should be established in law as a guiding principle for species and habitat conservation, including informing which species are protected. Decisions which impact on species’ populations and sustainability, including planning, licensing and sustainable hunting, should be assessed against the relevant FCS objectives. Existing site protection rules, including case law and Habitats Regulations Assessment, should be retained and applied effectively to all protected sites. Choices about site designation should be science-based. There should not be a single process for terrestrial designation along the lines of the proposal in the Green Paper for the designation decision to rest with the appropriate authority (the Secretary of State). The Secretary of State could be given the power to designate sites, but this must be in addition to (not instead of) the current designation process where statutory agencies have a duty to identify sites that meet the criteria.
- Time should not be spent on reforming public bodies, rather specific nature and/or biodiversity recovery purposes should be set for all Defra ALBs and the growth duty removed.
The following recommendations to the NRGP objectives offer robust alternatives to ensure the best chances for nature recovery in England:
Retain features of current legislation that provide strong protections for species and their habitats as part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. This should include the retention of different levels and measures of protection which can be provided or applied based on whatever is appropriate for any given species. Our interpretation of the current proposals is that they have the potential to weaken, rather than strengthen protection for species. Consolidating and simplifying wildlife legislation has the serious potential to impede nature recovery rather than promote it. Whilst some careful consolidation could be undertaken in consultation with relevant stakeholders, the complexity of current legislation largely reflects the complexity of dealing with varying threats facing, ecologically, very different species. Instead, improvements should be made to the wording of the existing legislation to strengthened certain areas, in particular (i) to prohibit any ‘deliberate’ or ‘reckless’ killing, as well as reckless damage or destruction to irreplaceable habitats, and (ii) to provide greater clarity around the extent and interpretation of protection for species habitats and features such as places used for shelter, protection and breeding.
Strengthen the monitoring and evidence required to underpin legislation and listing of species needing protection by providing funding for relevant NGOs to develop and run robust monitoring programmes for species with threatened status either internationally or on a national scale but for which rigorous data are lacking. Some taxa, such as mammals, are poorly monitored, if at all. For many species, such as hedgehogs, there are no robust methods with which to monitor populations, leaving many widespread species considered ‘common’ in the absence of actual evidence. The current proposals fail to acknowledge this huge evidence gap and seek to focus on those for which data exists, a concerning failure of the proposed policy to address ‘all nature’. Monitoring and reporting should be required on a statutory basis, in line with the Bern Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on Migratory Species, the OSPAR Convention and other multi-lateral environmental agreements (and/or their sub-agreements), as well as with the Environment Act and 25 Year Environment Plan monitoring and reporting requirements.
There is also a need for better monitoring of more common and widespread species to ensure representation of all taxa, and to be alert to future declines in time to act. Ambitions should be set to emulate the monitoring programmes for birds, bats and butterflies across all taxa. Robust, open-access data should be collected for species that are currently targeted for various control measures (such as those on game estates), where no overarching policy currently exists to monitor whether those measures threaten to push species populations into decline.
Develop robust species recovery plans. The Green Paper acknowledges that current legislation focuses on preventing threats and species declines, and that there is a gap on how to achieve positive conservation measures to ensure nature recovery. There needs to be detailed information on how species recovery will be achieved, where it will be focussed, who is responsible for achieving it and who is responsible for monitoring whether recovery is happening or not. Recovery cannot rely on private funding; whilst private funds could be levered to enhance recovery efforts, it is crucial that sufficient public funds are made available to achieve ambitious targets.
All public authorities, landowners and managers of protected sites should have a duty to implement the relevant actions in the species action plans or strategies. This proposal would help integrate species conservation both within the protected site network and the wider landscape through other decisions and policies, such as land use planning, Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) and Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs).
Identify the need to protect habitat to protect species. There needs to be acknowledgement and a clear intention that to recover declining species to a favourable conservation status, threats to species’ habitats need to be clearly and effectively addressed. Species recovery cannot be confined to protected areas when many declining species, such as hedgehogs and hazel dormice, rely on healthy, well-connected habitat outside protected areas. Loss of irreplaceable habitats, such as historic hedgerows and ancient woodland, undermines any species recovery programmes. Identification and protection of irreplaceable habitats that are needed to support species in a favourable conservation status, must form part of the policy to underpin any strategies or plans to recover declining species.
- By recognising the importance of species’ habitat (not well addressed in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) for all their needs, including foraging, breeding, sheltering and dispersal.
- By ensuring that new legislation does not enable schemes such as Biodiversity Net Gain to fuel further loss of species whose conservation status is far from favourable, on local, regional and national levels.
- By creating a robust and well-funded mechanism that enables local planning authorities (LPAs) to work with relevant NGOs and statutory agencies to ensure detrimental, cumulative impacts on species are avoided by ensuring LPAs or relevant bodies have the information needed to make fully informed, transparent and evidence-based decisions.
- By overhauling the licensing system to ensure that, locally and nationally, the cumulative impact of development does not undermine the current conservation status of a species and in fact should help move it to a favourable conservation status. A regular review of the impact on different species at different scales is needed and legal powers requiring restoration following any harm or damage. Clear guidance around licensing needs to be developed with licensing loss of existing habitats (and the impact on the associated populations of species) as an absolute last resort, rather than usual practice. Natural England must have the authority to reject applications for licence where a cumulative impact on a species of concern will impact their conservation status and have the authority to prosecute and withhold future licences from individuals, businesses or groups that do not adhere to licenced obligations or fulfil future obligations (including monitoring and evidence gathering) of a licence requirement.
Develop a robust, agreed system for listing species requiring protection and recovery. Use a range of different criteria including, but not limited to, IUCN Red List threatened status, and unfavourable or declining conservation status, with provisions made for species where an FCS assessment has not been carried out. IUCN red-listed species which are assessed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are all determined to be at risk of extinction in the wild, and therefore a high priority for protection. England is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, therefore national guidelines also need to be considered when identifying which species need protection. When data is lacking to determine the conservation status of a species, the Precautionary Principle should be applied, and species should be listed. Some full species groups should remain listed or be listed, including birds, bats, cetaceans, reptiles and amphibians, as well as individual mammal species currently afforded protection such as red squirrel, water vole, pine marten, hazel dormouse, mountain hare and water vole, and those which are threatened with extinction in the wild internationally or nationally. Regard should also be given to relatively widespread and common species to prevent localised extinctions on county levels.
Develop a renewed focus on nationally endangered species, additional to IUCN listing, such as hedgehog, harvest mouse and brown hare, that currently under the UK legislative system do not have adequate protection to promote their recovery and that may need protection at a regional or local scale.
Avoid a rebranding exercise that wastes funds. Focus instead on retaining aspects of legislation that work well, providing sufficient funds for government agencies to fulfil their requirements properly and effectively, and build on evidence and previous good practice in the UK BAP process already gathered in order to develop effective strategies and plans to recover species populations.
Build on former successes. We welcome the proposal and need for species conservation strategies for individual species. However, we wish to highlight that the UK’s former National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) approach (NBSAP, still required as a reporting mechanism by Contracting parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) served a similar function in the not long distant past, worked well and was popular both on a national scale (UK BAP) (and across the countries of the UK) and locally (through Local Biodiversity Action Plans). Each Species Action Plan (SAP), Habitat Action Plan (HAP) and Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) could be scaled down and tailored for specific areas. The current proposals should learn from and build upon these rather than developing new but similar strategies from scratch.
Avoid adopting potentially harmful measures prior to conclusions of the consultation.
We recognise the positive intent throughout the consultation document but urge the UK Government (across all its departments and statutory agencies) not to take any premature action in advance of the conclusions of the consultation being thoroughly considered.
In response to the lack of specific detail regarding species recovery proposals we welcome this as an opportunity to offer proposals and a chance to work closely with Defra in upcoming months to ensure that many of our much-loved, widespread but often overlooked mammal species are given the consideration, protection and conservation interventions needed to stop and reverse their declines.
We hope this response provides some useful advice and recommendations that will enable us to work together as a wider community to ensure protection and recovery for the UK’s species, both in and outside protected areas.
See Wildlife and Countryside Link’s response: