Fact checker: What does it mean to say land is ‘protected’?

The claim...
The UK met the Aichi target to protect 17% of terrestrial land and in-land water

Rolling hills in Dent, UK

The reality...
New research suggests this can only be claimed if sites in ‘unfavourable recovering’ condition are included in the assessment

A year ago today, the government committed to protect 30% of UK land for nature by 2030, when it said that national parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and other protected areas already comprise approximately 26% of land in England.

However, last month, a new study published in the Global Ecology and Conservation Journal examined the protection given to sites under UK legislation and designations - and cast fresh light on what it means for land to be considered ‘protected’ or not.

It did so in the context of the Aichi biodiversity targets, which all nations that attended the 2010 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signed up to.

Although globally very few of the targets were met, one of the few which the UK government claimed to have met was target 11, to protect 17% of terrestrial land and inland water. 

However, analysis in the new study examined how varying the definition of what it means for a site to be ‘effectively protected’, based on the condition of the site, changes whether or not the UK can truly claim to have met the target. 

The IUCN categories for protected land - 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 also states that category I-IV sites are more strictly protected than those in categories V and VI.

The study authors say that the only way the Aichi target 11 could be considered to have been met is if all IUCN categories (including those in the less well protected V and VI categories) were considered, and if the estimate of how effectively those sites are protected is based on site features in both ‘favourable’ and ‘unfavourable recovering’ condition.

‘Unfavourable recovering’ condition status indicates that a site or feature fails to meet the required standard, but has appropriate management in place that will achieve those standards. 

However, the study notes that data from the UK biodiversity indicator C1c on the condition of protected areas shows that there has been little change in the percentage of sites recorded as in ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable recovering’ condition over the last 10 years. 

In the paper's conclusion it says that "considering the evidence which we have presented here, it is arguable whether the UK is yet fulfilling Aichi target 11 in terms of effective protection of nature".

Indeed, the study says that when only considering more strictly protected and more natural areas (categories Ia-IV), and estimating effective protection based on the percentage of features in ‘favourable’ condition, the figures suggest that as little as 4.9% of UK land area could be considered effectively protected.

When asked if this was an accurate presentation of how the government had assessed whether it met Aichi target 11, a DEFRA spokesperson did not deny the findings of the study, but said:  “We have already strengthened our landmark Environment Bill to set a legally-binding target to halt species decline by 2030. 

“Before the end of the year, we will publish a green paper that will set out our approach to driving nature recovery in England. This will include strengthening 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.”

The spokesperson added that the UK needed to “learn lessons” from the implementation of the Aichi targets and ensure that the new framework contains ambitious but measurable targets, and is strengthened by “coherent implementation mechanisms” that are commensurate with the scale of the challenge.

DEFRA added that across the UK, 6.8m hectares of land (27.8% of the land area in the UK) “are protected in some form”.



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