In February, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) launched a call for evidence on protected sites for nature in England and Northern Ireland.
IEMA hosted a small workshop of experts, including from the IEMA Biodiversity and Natural Capital Network, to respond to the consultation.
The consultation considered specifically Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
The OEP’s own document published earlier this year, Progress in Improving the Natural Environment in England, 2021/22, reported that there is “a continued decline in the condition of SSSIs”.
The British Ecological Society’s paper Protected Areas and Nature Recovery identifies that statutory agencies struggle to meet the level of monitoring set out in the Common Standards Monitoring framework used on protected sites and that 78% of SSSIs had not been monitored for more than six years (their mandated period for reporting monitoring).
Protected sites are essential to halt the loss of rare and declining habitats and species. Protected sites can be part of meeting environmental targets, including increasing species abundance by 2042 compared with 2022 and ensuring they are 10% higher in 2042 than in 2030.
In its response to the consultation, IEMA set out several recommendations.
The laws on protected sites could be updated and adapted (not removed) to have a greater focus on maintaining and improving irreplaceable habitats and priority habitats, enhancing populations and priority species, and providing space for nature to adapt within them. This might include the creation of buffer zones and stronger influence on the areas directly adjacent to sites to reduce impacts. It might also include a consideration of improving the connectivity of the currently ‘freestanding’ protected sites to other habitats. New protected sites might be created.
Monitoring reports are currently published every six years, which is an effective timeframe, but these reports should include forward plans for improvement and monitoring should include biodiversity trends. These plans should be created with local stakeholders, especially those who have a role in managing the protected areas. The data collected should be stored and freely available for the future.
Perhaps most importantly, the government agencies in charge of protected sites must have sufficient resources to organise the good management of sites effectively. This includes providing information to stakeholders requiring permissions in a timely fashion, and monitoring and planning to protect and enhance habitats and species.
Updating laws and implementation strategies, and strengthening government agencies to provide good service to protected sites, will support the development of the full range of priority habitats and species within the sites.
The full consultation response can be found on IEMA’s website.
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