‘Disgraceful’: Level of protected water habitats in worst condition doubles

The percentage of water habitats in protected sites in an “unfavourable declining condition” has doubled in three years, exclusive ENDS analysis of government data has revealed, with the number of sites classed as “favourable” also declining across the board.

South Milton Ley nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest. Source - GettyImages, Michael Roberts

The new figures were shared yesterday in an update to the “state of the water environment indicator” page.

Notable updates relate specifically to European protected nature sites for water and wetlands, using data retrieved in November 2022. This includes “rivers, lakes, wetlands, estuaries and coasts, and other water-dependent habitats including sites designated for birds that may be in favourable condition without assessment of water quality”, for example Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), according to the website. 

A comparative analysis by ENDS between the new data and the previous data, last retrieved in December 2019, has revealed that the number of sites deemed to be in an “unfavourable declining” status, which is the worst metric, increased from 3% to 6% in the latest update. 

Sites in a “favourable” condition, the best ranking, decreased from 46% to 45%. 

The sites that were deemed to be in an “unfavourable state but recovering” also saw a decrease, going from 47% of sites to 43% of sites, and those described as “unfavourable with no change” increased from 4% to 6%. 

The data behind the figures has not been published, just a derived analysis which includes the percentages only. The assessment is based on drivers measured as per the Water Framework Directive. ENDS has contacted Natural England for the full data set. 

Former Undertones frontman Feargal Sharkey, who is vice president of Wildfish and vice chairman of River Action UK, told ENDS that the lack of transparency by the government in presenting this data is “disgraceful”. 

“We designate these sites and then we don’t even protect them. Some of the rarest habitats in the world are at risk.

“Once again the absolute fraud and lack of regulation by this government is exposed. They have no interest in protecting the environment,” he said.

Looking at the individual types of waterway, no habitat in this category of protected sites saw an improvement in the latest data.

The percentage of protected estuaries and coastal sites in the worst condition saw the starkest change, going from 3.5% to 6.1% which is nearly double.  

Lakes under this status also saw a significant increase, going from 5.4% in 2019 in the “unfavourable declining” status to 8.3% in 2022. Wetlands under this status also increased from 2.2% to 3.3% and rivers under this status increased from 1.8% to 2.2%.

Originally, lakes were the habitat with the highest percentage of sites in a favourable state at 61.5%, however this has declined to 58.8% of sites (dropping below estuaries and coasts at 59.4%).

All habitats deemed to be in a “favourable” state declined, with wetlands seeing the steepest decline with a 10% drop - decreasing from 14.8% in 2019 to 13.3% in 2022. Wetlands in an “unfavourable recovering” state also saw a decline, dropping from 79% to 73.2%, a 7% decrease.

River habitats saw the sharpest decline in sites under an “unfavourable recovering” status, which dropped from 59.1% in 2019 to 51.3% in 2022. 

Every habitat recorded an increase in sites at “unfavourable no change” status, where the site has not improved or declined since the last dataset.

Richard Benwell, chief executive  of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said that the figures show that the condition of “England's most important waters for wildlife is headed in the wrong direction”.  

He continued: “Current policies to tackle the main culprits – agricultural and wastewater pollution, physical modification and invasive species – are not yet up to the task. 

“When the government publishes its approach to 30x30 later this year, it must show its workings on a plan to improve SSSI conditions across the board to have any credibility.”

A Defra spokesperson said that the data is an annual update to the 25 Year Environmental Plan Outcome Indicator Framework, which uses existing data to look at how its delivering on the goals it set out in the plan, including one on protecting the status of our sensitive waterways.

They said: “This data is not new and does not show a decline in water quality."

“We are taking a number of actions to improve water quality through our Plan for Water. This brings together the significant action already taken, along with more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement on those who pollute.”