Legislation: New Approaches to Nature Conservation in the UK


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Keywords: nature conservation, protected areas, ecosystems approach, ecosystem services, species protection, marine conservation zones, Natural Environment Framework, 2010 Biodiversity Targets, EU Biodiversity Strategy, Law Commission

Despite the enactment of several pieces of legislation on nature conservation over the last 30 years,1 the basic components of nature conservation law have not changed materially. Individual species are protected according to their perceived vulnerability with measures ranging from prohibition of methods of capture and sale of specimens through to making it an offence to disturb individual animals or uproot plants.2 The level of protection varies with the type of organisms concerned and for most groups only applies to listed species.3

Legal regimes for the protection of habitats have developed separately.4 The main mechanism is the protected area designation whereby human activities are constrained in order to maintain, or more recently enhance, the features for which the site has been designated.5 A different legal basis exists for the protection of landscapes, where the basis for protection is aesthetics,6 but the objectives of the two regimes have come closer over the years.7 The protection of marine species and habitats was a later addition.8

This broad framework for nature conservation has been followed at European level in the Birds and Habitats Directives9 and a similar distinction between species protection and protected areas provisions can be found in international wildlife conventions, notably the Convention on Biological Diversity.10

Recent policy developments by the UK Government and the devolved administrations may result in drastic changes to the way we look at nature conservation and how we use both species protection and protected area legislation. The developments have their origins in government responses to the failure to meet biodiversity targets. The nature of the responses is in some ways a logical development arising from commitments to sustainable development and an espousal of the ecosystems approach to environmental management with the emphasis on ecosystem goods and services, although the cynical view is that the new thinking comes from a desire to shift the emphasis more towards economic growth at the expense of nature conservation.


As an instrument for environmental management, the ecosystems (or ecosystem) approach first came to prominence in the workings of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The ecosystems approach is closely linked in government policy with the concept of ecosystem services which the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) defines as services provided by the natural environment that benefit people'.' Defra defines it as 'a generic framework for incorporating the holistic consideration of ecosystem services and their value into policy, plan and decision making'.12 The Scottish Government similarly describes the ecosystems approach as 'a set of principles that can be applied to any plan Dr decision that may positively or negatively affect the environment, whether directly or indirectly. It is about making sure that we recognise and sustain the benefits provided by the environment whilst delivering other economic and social goals'.13 Defra has referred explicitly to the relationship between the ecosystems approach and ecosystem services, stating that '[ticking account of all the economic and non-economic benefits we get from these services enables decision-makers to exercise judgement about how we use our environment. Such an approach is often called an ecosystems approach'.

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