Many species in England are declining or have reached a low point following historic declines. In extreme cases, species have both lost vast areas of habitat and been lost from areas they once inhabited. Countless are now teetering on the edge; some have even gone extinct in recent years.
The Government’s recently published Nature Recovery Green Paper covers proposals for the revision of protected sites, public bodies and financing all have potential to influence species conservation. Unfortunately the proposals leave much to be desired.
What are the Government’s species proposals in the Nature Recovery Green Paper?
The Nature Recovery Green Paper section dedicated to species protection is a mere two pages long. Two pages for the thousands of species of animals, plants and fungi living here. There is a welcome suggestion that we need better enforcement of wildlife crime, and stronger penalties for convictions. These are long overdue and WCL’s annual wildlife crime report makes a compelling case for change. Could the Green Paper catalyse action here? We hope so – these changes should make a tangible difference for wildlife impacted by crime.
Aside from the few lines on crime, the Nature Recovery Green Paper is simultaneously underwhelming and alarming in respect of its species protection proposals. The tone is that much of our legislation is hamstrung by its origins in European directives and is just too complicated. It needs simplifying, government says, into three tiers of protection: “Minimum management standards”, “Protected” and “Highly protected” species. There is scant rationale given, and as far as we are aware this proposal has not arisen from any rigorous analysis of how species protection could be improved (if that does exist, we’d be keen to see it). While consolidation is certainly needed, we worry that the varied needs of species would be inconsistent with a rigid three tier system. The current system offers considerable flexibility to set levels of protection appropriate to species’ needs, using a menu of actions that can be proscribed, rather than three simple protection categories. The three tier and streamlining proposals risk a “levelling down” of protections for individual species, something that surely must be avoided.
There is also a mention of evidence-based criteria underpinning the proposed tiers of protection. Whilst protections should hinge on evidence, without any detail provided in the Nature Recovery Green Paper it is difficult to know precisely what is meant here and to properly evaluate the government’s proposals. As demonstrated by the confused approach over the use of IUCN Red Listing in the 7th Quinquennial Review of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, a more rigorous approach to evidence needs to be handled carefully. How will the new proposals assess the needs of species for which we have almost no current evidence? Species such as the harvest mouse are considered widespread and common but their true conservation status is unknown.
The Green Paper also briefly suggests simplifying the licensing process and hints at a focus on making it work better for people. Without knowing what’s proposed in more detail, this is disquieting, especially given the way that protected species are sometimes maligned by politicians. Simplifying a process for numerous and varied species, each with complex needs, could risk efforts to conserve biodiversity unless there are clear checks and balances.
Most disappointingly, the species protection section fails to address fundamental issues that would improve nature’s prospects for recovery, and instead seems to focus on making regulation more politically palatable. To guarantee their recovery, many species will need both sensible regulation and conservation action. There is little mention in the Nature Recovery Green Paper about how legal protection and active conservation should work better together, let alone what active conservation to aid recovery might look like.
What could actually make a difference to recover species?
As a small island nation we have relatively few species, a mere fraction compared with many countries. Which is all the more reason to do all we can to give our species a fighting chance. Some consolidation and potential reform of legislation would be useful. The Law Commission suggested changes in 2015, based on a thorough review and many of their ideas still look sensible today. There are opportunities to fix current issues with new species legislation, including ensuring under-represented taxa are given their due. But any reform needs to be done very carefully, so that existing protections are not compromised.
Existing legislation could be made much more effective through means other than changing the legal texts. Better statutory advice could help, and yet Government’s drive to minimise guidance works against this. Better structures and resourcing for both monitoring impacts and enforcement are also critical. Links to important international obligations or standards that the UK must report to, including the Bern Convention and the Ramsar Convention, are often missing and must be made explicit and clear.
Most fundamentally, legislation – and policy serving it – should be more outcome-focused than is currently the case. The species abundance target in the Environment Act 2021 is a great example. But we should bear in mind that protection is only part of the answer to species declines – we need better policies, programmes and resourcing to make a difference on the ground. What is currently missing is a joined-up approach to setting recovery goals for species, which clearly sets out the contribution that any law or policy should make.
We would like to see a shift to a system to drive recovery across species. Any reformed species legislation should include a high level purpose to recover species and underneath, clear objectives for species recovery defined by, for example, Favourable Conservation Status (FCS). This would provide a benchmark in legislation that proactive conservation actions should aim to achieve, and that decisions governing potentially damaging activities (e.g. licensing and planning) should be assessed against.
Green Papers are not intended to be the last word, and in his foreword the Secretary of State is clear that “the ultimate goal of this work is to better enable nature’s recovery”. With some significant changes to the Green Paper proposals, we believe the emerging array of legislation and policy offers a real glimmer of hope for species recovery.
Jim Foster is Conservation Director at Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) and Nida Al-Fulaij is Conservation Research Manager at People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES).
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
Latest Blog Posts