UK national parks do not meet international definition of strictly protected areas, says study

The UK’s national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) may not currently meet the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) definition of strictly protected areas, a new study has found.

UK national parks do not meet international definition of strictly protected areas, says study. Photograph: Nick Stone Schearer/Getty Images UK national parks do not meet international definition of strictly protected areas, says study. Photograph: Nick Stone Schearer/Getty Images

It also finds global progress towards protecting terrestrial land and inland water may have been overestimated, and that just 5% of the UK’s land is being protected effectively for nature - nearly six times lower than the 28% figure reported by the government.

The extent and effectiveness of protected areas in the UK study, published in the Global Ecology and Conservation Journal, examined the protection given to sites under UK legislation and designations, in the context of the Aichi biodiversity targets which all nations that attended the 2010 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signed up to.

One of the few Aichi targets which the UK said it had met was to protect 17% of terrestrial land and inland water.

The IUCN categories - recognised by the CBD - span sites ranging from strict nature reserves, considered to be the most natural (category Ia) to protected landscape and seascape sites, which have the least natural conditions (category V). There is a category for national parks (II), however, the study finds that none of the UK’s designated national parks correspond to this IUCN category, but rather “are currently considered to come under category V”. The study states that category I-IV sites are also more strictly protected than those in categories V and VI.

Data in the new study shows that less than 0.01% of the UK’s land is made up of sites which meet the criteria for category Ia - the most protected and most natural according to the IUCN.

The study notes that looking more broadly at the UK’s protected area estate, it is disproportionately represented by sites with the less protected category V designation. 

It also finds that out of the 28% of land reported by the government to be protected for nature, only 11% is designated primarily for nature conservation.

Speaking to the Independent, Dr Graeme Buchanan, study author and a conservation scientist at the RSPB, said: “There is a considerable difference between the level which has been quoted about the level of effective protection in the UK and the actual level, which we find using readily available figures.”

The study goes on to conclude that if the UK is taken as an example of a country which reported itself as meeting the Aichi target to protect 17% of terrestrial land and inland water, “we suggest that global progress may have been overestimated, and that future targets and indicators need to focus on the quality as well as quantity of protected areas.”

A UK government spokesperson told the Independent: “Our landmark Environment Bill will include a duty for a new, historic, legally binding target aiming to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030.

“As part of our commitment to protect 30% of land by 2030, we are determined to strengthen our existing network of protected sites and protected landscapes, by improving their value for biodiversity, and by extending them or identifying other effective area-based conservation measures.”

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Urban Green Newcastle is an independent charity responsible for the management and restoration of 33 parks and over 60 allotment sites across Newcastle upon Tyne.