Continuing my series to celebrate 20 years since the launch of Biodiversity Challenge: an Agenda for Conservation in the UK (yes I had a hand in the hubristic title), today I look at Habitats.
Derek Ratcliffe had developed the criteria for selecting SSSIs in the 1970s and the definition of habitats had occurred alongside, with the best sites for each habitat being defined in A Nature Conservation Review in 1977.
The National Vegetation Classification (NVC), the uses and abuses of which I have recently blogged about, also defined plant communities based on the fidelity of plant species to their communities. These in many ways defined most terrestrial habitats.
By the 1990s conservation was starting to get an idea of how much was left of each habitat, with habitat surveys that had been initiated in the 1970s. But no-one had actually thought what each habitat needed for its conservation, or how much of a given habitat was “enough”. Biodiversity Challenge introduced Habitat Action Plans to the UK. These HAPs would spell out everything that was known about a habitat – where it was, how much was left, the reasons for its decline, and what needed to be done. The actions included creation/restoration targets, but also wider policy actions such as reform of agri-environment schemes, or strengthening the SSSI legislation, which at the time was still weak.
The adoption of the HAPs was a long slow and painful process. Although the first official HAPs were published in the UK Biodiversity Steering Group report (1995), HAP implementation didn’t start until much later, as I recall. HAPs really got going, in as much as they got going at all, in 2003 when the devolved Biodiversity Strategies were published. To be honest I was away from the affray doing freelance work so I have no memory of what happened. It did feel like (from the outside) the initial excitement and momentum had gone from the whole thing by then. I joined the Lowland Grassland HAP steering group in 2007 and watched it die a slow and painful death. Although everyone at the group wanted it to work, it had no influence over anything really – it reported into other toothless groups like the England Biodiversity Group, whose plaintive cries were lost long before they reached the senior corridors of Defra, let alone the Minister.
Some good came of the HAP process. Tomorrows Heathland Heritage (THH), whch began in 1997 was the first (only) large scale commitment to nature conservation from the Lottery. It funded millions of pounds of heathland restoration work across the country – directly as a result of Biodiversity Challenge.
Challenge, and subsequently the BAP process, introduced criteria for determining conservation priority for habitats, as much as it for species. Ultimately this led to the Priority Habitats lists that we have today. Many are still vulnerable to damage and loss because the underpinning regulatory protections are too weak (EIA for Agriculture is one I have particularly focussed on). All habitats now have definitions, although some are much clearer than others. You can find these definitions on the JNCC website.
Did the Challenge approach to HAPs work? Ultimately no, because the HAPs are now dead, killed off by bureaucracy (although the woodland and wood-pasture HAPs continue on as zombie groups, not knowing they are dead). During their lifetime did they move habitat conservation forward? Yes I would say they did. Just as for species, some of the more neglected habitats saw recognition for the first time – Brownfield habitats now have priority status (as the cumbersomely named Open Mosaic Habitat on Previously Developed Land). Even though HAPs are dead, priority habitats live on in the current round of national biodiversity plans, and each is given at least some attention both by NGOs, conservation agencies and local government. Presence of a priority habitat is now a material consideration in planning, which it never was unless the site had some form of designation. And the recognition and identification of priority habitats has driven a great deal of sectoral action in the voluntary sector (Million Ponds, Wetland Vision, saving our magnificent meadows, The Floodplain Meadows Partnership) and has greatly influenced how funding is allocated to conservation, from sources like Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Landfill Tax Credit Schemes.
Some might say, this is all technocratic nonsense, and habitats grade into each other – we lose the value of the spaces in between the definitions. This is true, but there is still value in defining what we are trying to conserve, if we are trying to conserve habitats, rather than just processes.