England’s wildlife may be much worse off than we thought, groundbreaking analysis shows

English landscape
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Groundbreaking new analysis shows that the Conservative government hasn’t assessed almost two-thirds of the land in England’s key wildlife protection sites in over a decade. Moreover, of the sites it has assessed in recent years, a growing proportion are in poor condition.

The nonprofit Wild Justice, which carried out the analysis, says that the government’s system of nature monitoring has “fallen into disrepair”. It also warns that the findings point to the possibility that England’s wildlife is “in a much worse state than current estimates admit”.

England’s wildlife assessments are years old

Wild Justice published its findings in a report titled A Sight for Sore SSSIs on 24 July. The title refers to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which are the focus of the analysis.

As Natural England explains, SSSIs are protected areas aimed at safeguarding a “specific aspect of biological or earth heritage interest”. There are some 7,000 SSSIs across the UK, with over half of them situated in England. Natural England is the government body responsible for monitoring these sites in the country.

Wild Justice submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the body regarding biological SSSIs. These are sites protected for their important wildlife, rather than their geology or ‘earth heritage’. The organisation sought information on when Natural England last assessed the units that make up these biologically important sites, as well as what the assessments show.

It found that Natural England has not assessed 66% of SSSIs – by area – in a decade or longer. This means that when the government puts out information on the state of protected nature in England, much of it is unlikely to be a true reflection of what’s happening on the ground. Wild Justice’s Mark Avery explained on Twitter:

Quite frankly, SSSI condition monitoring is way off the pace and gives a falsely optimistic picture of the biological reality. The public is being misled.

Read on...

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Wild Justice excluded data that Natural England provided on geological SSSIs from its analysis, along with data on a small number of SSSI units that had incomplete data or ‘destroyed’ status.

Wildlife in decline

When Natural England assesses SSSIs, it gives them one of six classifications. These are essentially favourable, unfavourable but recovering, unfavourable with no change, unfavourable and declining, part destroyed, and fully destroyed.

The status of wildlife is not static. As communities of living organisms, things can change in SSSIs – either rapidly or slowly, based on internal and external factors. The Conservative government has, for instance, carried out a years-long mass slaughter of the UK’s largest land predators – badgers – in England since 2013. Prior to the killing starting, the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), now called Fera Science, warned that “badger control” could:

have significant negative impacts on either individual species, assemblages of species and/or designated sites.

In other words, having up-to-date information on wildlife matters. The Wild Justice report helps to illustrate why this is the case.

The report shows that more recent SSSI assessments point to the declining health of wildlife sites. For example, of the SSSIs assessed prior to 2011, only 1% carry the unfavourable and declining classification. Fast forward to those assessed in the last three years and the number jumps to 31%.

Similarly, the amount of SSSIs with favourable classifications in assessments before 2011 stood at 41%. However, assessments conducted between 2021 and 2023 show that only 27% are in a favourable condition.

In its report, Wild Justice warns that:

An entirely plausible possibility (not a worst case scenario by any means) is that if all SSSIs in England were assessed in the next few years then their condition would resemble the most recent condition assessments made in the last three calendar years.

If this were the case, only 54% of SSSIs would merit the favourable or favourable but recovering classification. Using its outdated figures, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs currently claims that 89% of SSSIs fit these classifications, the report notes.

Significant changes needed to restore nature

Wild Justice is calling for change, both in terms of government transparency and competence. It says authorities should provide yearly updates on SSSIs that make clear when Natural England last assessed each of them. The organisation is also urging the government to carry out a “rapid catch-up” of assessments.

It further calls for an “urgent review” of what resources Natural England needs to ensure that the government meets its target of 95% of SSSIs being in a favourable or unfavourable but recovering state, based on more up-to-date assessments.

This call for better protection and oversight of SSSIs follows a recent push from dozens of wildlife-focused charities to secure political backing for a five-point plan for nature. The plan calls for rapid restoration of nature sites by 2030, among other measures.

Featured image via Julian P Guffogg / Wikimedia, cropped to 1910×1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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