ARC raises a voice for UK amphibians and reptiles as Government sets out new plans for nature recovery

The Government has outlined proposals to fundamentally change the way that nature conservation is being delivered, including the way that both sites and species are protected.  The Nature Recovery Green Paper that has been circulated for consultation identifies a number of changes to legislation and policy intended to support the recovery of nature in England; many of these could significantly affect amphibians and reptiles. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), alongside other conservation organisations, and in particular working with the Wildlife & Countryside Link network of 65 conservation charities, has responded warning that there is a risk that rewriting the rule book could be harmful to wildlife and may be a backward step.

Dr Tony Gent ARC’s CEO said: “The Green Paper clearly states some good intentions; however, the absence of detail in proposals where the detail matters is worrying.  Some elements look like rebranding, but others could dismantle some of the current rules that protect our threatened wildlife. We need to make this opportunity count towards turning around the fortunes of declining species by bringing forward proposals for species recovery ensuring we keep the key pillars of nature conservation that have been so important to conserving amphibian and reptiles, and other wildlife, over the last 30 or more years”.

What is being proposed?

The Government is suggesting changing the legislation that protect sites and species, looking to simplify the approach to designating protected sites and creating a ‘three tier’ system for assigning species different levels of protection.  This is driven by an ambition to secure more protected sites, and make the way species are protected much easier to understand and to enforce.

“While a little thin on detail, this would involve changes to the Wildlife & Countryside Act and the Conservation Regulations which are at the heart of conservation in Britain. These changes could risk reducing the protection offered to some species, and weakening the protection and scope for management of protected sites.  We have to ensure that species, including amphibians and reptiles, are considered as important features when selecting sites and their needs are catered for in site management.  We are keen to see these underpinned by strong legislation; we are concerned that proposals for encouraging local interpretation and judgements may lead to divergence and reduce scope for enforcement and that the strong protection granted to ‘European sites’ could become watered down.

We believe that legislation is most effective when its purpose is clearly stated – ARC have suggested the need to include a strong conservation and enhancement of biodiversity objective, referring to the need to achieve and sustain a ‘favourable conservation status’, using words that are already well enshrined in UK and European legislation.  By describing this objective, we will provide a strong framework for determining which sites need to be designated, what species need protecting and to what level, and the basis for monitoring; we have emphasised the importance of putting an effective monitoring programme at the heart of these proposals.” states Dr Gent.

The Green paper also seeks views on how the Government should fulfil its promise to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. It is hoped that this welcome commitment will ensure that the best sites are protected and managed into the future. This must however not mean that the other 70%, which will be vital for achieving nature recovery, is forgotten to ensure high standards for the 30%. To make sure nature thrives it requires connection to the wider landscape.

ARC supports the drive to increase tree cover in Britain to benefit both climate and biodiversity, but has stated that this initiative must not be at the expense of open habitats, such as heaths, moorland, peat bogs and meadows; advocating that not only is tree planting targeted to appropriate areas without losing sight of the importance of active management to keep ‘open habitats’ open.

The consultation also sought views on how ‘green recovery’ should be taken forward – notably on the benefits or otherwise of amalgamating the different Governmental agencies and on the use of different funding mechanisms including charging for licensing and use of private finance.  Any benefits from amalgamating agencies is likely to lose focus and add disruption, but recognise there are areas where some changes to responsibilities, and a shared duty to conserve biodiversity, could assist.

“Private finance needs to be seen as additional to, and not instead of, public funding – this is potentially very valuable, but there are risks with over reliance on private funding as the incentives required could start to skew outcomes and possibly even encouraged damaging activities as a means for generating funding.” concludes Dr Gent.

For more information on the Nature Green Paper and the main responses to it from Wildlife and Countryside Link members, see top lines document here.

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iImage: Witley Common by Gillian Pullinger