Protected areas have ‘negligible’ impact on wildlife numbers, say ecologists

The UK’s protected areas provide only “negligible” benefits to wildlife, with national parks affording no more protection to bird species than the wider countryside, according to a new report calling for major reform.

A White Stork. Image: Pixabay

The British Ecological Society (BES) has published a paper assessing the role that protected areas play in supporting nature, and what measures need to be taken to see the government meet its ambition to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, known as ‘30 by 30’.

The report states that many of England’s protected areas are in poor ecological condition, and urges caution over what should count towards the 30 by 30 target.

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When many of the country’s national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) were designated, they were not done so specifically for the benefit of protecting nature, and as a result are often exposed to many of the same pressures driving declines elsewhere, write the report authors.

The report cites analysis of local extinctions of bird species in national parks and AONBs, which showed that national parks “afforded no more protection to species than the wider countryside”, with AONBs providing only “marginal additional protection”. 

Another study of abundance data for birds and butterflies found that for nearly all groups of species within protected areas there were “negligible differences in species population abundance trends” as compared to outside them.

The paper also cites a 2018 article which reported that Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) outside of England’s national parks and AONBs were more likely to be in favourable condition than those inside.

“This may be because most national parks are located in the uplands where there has been, and remains, widespread ecologically damaging land management, for example through overgrazing and burning,” says the BES report, adding that “major reform is necessary to ensure these designations are significantly improved for biodiversity”. 

As well as urging caution on what should count towards the 30 by 30 target, the report seeks to highlight a lack of studies in reporting trends in biodiversity within UK protected areas, due to “limited monitoring at the appropriate form and scale”.

READ MORE: Could DEFRA’s nature metric mask declines?

Dr Paul Sinnadurai of the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority and Cardiff University, and author of the report, said that protected areas have “suffered from not having enough resources and having to make too many compromises”. This has left them in a position where they are not doing enough to support nature, he added.

“To turn this around, money and resources need to be made available for consistent monitoring. During the late 1990s and early noughties, there was a good advance in the use of the Common Standards for Monitoring in protected areas, but momentum wasn’t maintained in this essential practice because it is resource intensive.”

A government consultation on the future of how England’s protected landscapes are managed has recently closed, with DEFRA expected to respond in due course.