Habitats Directive turns 20

Image: Dave PeakeImage: Dave Peake

As the EU Habitats Directive turns 20, The Wildlife Trusts' Head of Living Seas, Joan Edwards, reflects on its importance and how it could be more effective.

This week sees the 20th anniversary of the Habitats Directive.  Twenty years ago, EU member states, including the UK, unilaterally adopted this Directive in response to concerns about large scale declines in species and habitats.

Across Europe, it protects over a thousand species of plant and animal, and over 200 habitats.  In the UK, (through the Habitats and Birds Regulations, the UK interpretation of the Directive), this means that species such as the European otter, dormouse, bottlenose dolphin and harbour porpoise are protected under European law.  There is also protection for habitats such as the New Forest in Hampshire, the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, and Lyme Bay in Devon .

This piece of legislation is vital, forming the cornerstone of European policy on nature conservation.  In the UK, it allows us to protect species and habitats of European importance, through Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs).  Both SACs and SPAs play a critical conservation role by providing wildlife refuges, supporting nationally threatened species and habitats. On land, along with Local Wildlife Sites, they are the starting point for Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs).

At sea, they are a key part of our network of Marine Protected Areas and should help our seas to recover from past declines by protecting some of our most fragile and rare habitats from degrading and damaging activity.  However, at present, we don’t feel that this network is delivering the protection that our marine environment so desperately needs.

Many of our marine SACs, in particular those designated last year, have no management plans and damaging activity is still occurring within them.  At present, further degradation of these sites is taking place as the Government is slow to put management measures in place.

Furthermore, we are very concerned that for those marine SACs where the Government has proposed management, these plans are inadequate, failing to take a holistic approach which takes into account the whole ecosystem of the site, rather than focusing on its individual features.

Designation of these sites is an important first step.  The presence of the Habitats Directives and the strides that the UK Government has made to implement it should be recognised.  However, these are only the first steps.  We need the Government to show commitment to these sites now they are designated and put in place clear, well enforced conservation measures to allow our marine life to recover from the devastating declines it has suffered.  Only then will these sites truly be worth celebrating.

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