Skip to Content

C1. Protected areas

a. Total extent of protected areas: on land

b. Total extent of protected areas: at sea

c. Condition of Areas/Sites of Special Scientific Interest

Type: Extent – Response Indicator; 

          Condition – State/Response Indicator

Introduction

This indicator shows the extent of UK protected areas both on land and at sea. The 2 extent measures are a calculation of the net (non-overlapping) extent of protected areas using mean high water as the boundary between the on-land and at-sea measures.

The indicator also shows the condition of terrestrial and coastal features on Areas or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (A/SSSIs). A/SSSIs are designated for their ‘features’ – habitats or species which give them their scientific interest. Each country in the UK assesses the condition of features and reports either the area or the number of features in favourable or unfavourable-recovering condition. These assessments are converted to percentages in this indicator, to allow them to be combined, but the percentage does not equate exactly to the area that is favourable or unfavourable-recovering.

Key results

The total extent of land and sea protected in the UK through national and international protected areas, and through wider landscape designations, has increased by 17.3 million hectares (MHa), from 21.3 MHa in December 2015 to 38.6 MHa as at 25 September 2020 (Figure C1i).

This increase is almost entirely down to the designation of inshore and offshore marine sites under the European Union (EU) Habitats Directive, the designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in English, Welsh, and Northern Irish waters, and designation of Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (NCMPA) in Scottish waters. The extent of protected areas on land has increased by 14,462 hectares since 2015.

The percentage of features, or area, of Areas or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (A/SSSIs) in favourable or unfavourable-recovering condition increased from 67% in 2005, to 86% in 2015, and remained stable at 85% in 2020 (Figure C1ii). The proportion of features or area of land in unfavourable-recovering condition (the light blue part of Figure C1ii) has increased from 14% in 2005 to 35% in 2020. These changes reflect improved management of sites, but may also be affected by a greater number of sites/features having been assessed over time.

Figure C1i. Extent of UK nationally and internationally important protected areas: (a) on land and (b) at sea, 1950 to 2020.

A line graph showing how the extent of UK nationally and internationally important protected areas on land, at sea and in total have changed between 1950 and 2020. Protected areas on land have increased steadily from 0.04 million hectares in 1950 to 6.8 million hectares in 2020. Protected areas at sea increased slightly between 1950 and 1995 and then more rapidly between 1996 and 2020. There are currently 31.8 million hectares of UK nationally and internationally important protected areas at sea

Notes:

  1. The boundary between protected areas on land and at sea is mean high water (mean high water spring in Scotland). Coastal sites in the indicator are split between ‘on land’ and ‘at sea’ if they cross the mean high water mark. At-sea extent includes offshore marine protected areas out to the limit of the UK continental shelf. The area of UK sea is calculated at 88.543 million hectares.
  2. Based on calendar year of site designation except for the latest year. For 2020, the data cut-off for terrestrial sites was 31 March with the exception of an extension to the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty calculated on 24 July 2020 and the cut-off for marine sites was 25 September due to the addition of a large Marine Protected Area in Scottish waters designated on 25 September but before publication of the 2020 UK Biodiversity Indicators.
  3. The calculation method and projection of spatial areas changed in 2019; these data are therefore not directly comparable to those presented in previous publications up to and including 2018 (see the ‘Indicator description, Extent’ section for further details).
  4. Extent is based on the following site designations: Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Northern Ireland), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England, Scotland and Wales), National Nature Reserves, Marine Conservation Zones, Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas, Ramsar Sites, Special Areas of Conservation (including candidate Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Community Importance), Special Protection Areas, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Scenic Areas, National Parks.

Source: Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, NatureScot.

Figure C1ii. Cumulative proportion of Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Northern Ireland) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England and Scotland) in ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable-recovering’ condition, 2005 to 2020.

A stacked bar chart showing how the cumulative proportion of Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Northern Ireland) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England and Scotland) in ‘favourable’ and ‘unfavourable-recovering’ condition have changed between 2005 and 2020. The proportion of areas/sites in favourable condition has fallen slightly from 53.7% in 2005 to 50.2% in 2020. The proportion in unfavourable-recovering condition has increased from 13.7% to 34.5% over the same time period.

Notes:

  1. England figures based on area. Scotland and Northern Ireland figures based on number of features. 
  2. Based on data to the end of March, except in 2006 and 2008, when data are to end of December. Data were not collated in 2007.
  3. Imputation has been used to calculate the breakdown between favourable and unfavourable-recovering for Northern Ireland for the years 2009 to 2011.
  4. Figures exclude condition of Areas/Sites of Special Scientific Interest notified for geological features only.

Source: Natural England, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, NatureScot.

Assessment of change in extent and condition of UK protected areas

  Long term Short term Latest year
Total extent of protected areas:
on land

Improving
1950–2020

Little or no overall change
2015–2020

No change (2020)
Total extent of protected areas:
at sea

Improving
1950–2020

Improving
2015–2020

Increased (2020)
Condition of A/SSSIs

Improving
2005–2020

Little or no overall change
2015–2020

No change (2020)

Note: Assessment of this indicator is based on comparison of latest data point with a 3-year average from the baseline, using the 3 earliest consecutive years available. See Assessing Indicators.

Top

Indicator description

Extent

The indicator was expanded in 2014 to include 3 wider landscape designations: Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), National Scenic Areas (NSAs), and National Parks; sites designated under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar sites); and new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). In 2015, National Nature Reserves (NNRs) were added to the indicator. As at 24 July 2020, over 6.7 MHa of land and freshwater have been designated under national and international legislation – representing 28% of the land area of the UK (Table C1i). As at 25 September, a further 31.8 MHa of UK seas, both within the 12 nautical mile limit and offshore, have also been designated, representing 36% of UK waters (based on the UK continental shelf limit). In all cases when new designation types were added to the indicator, the series was recalculated to the start, so those new site types appeared in all years for which it was valid that they do so.

Table C1i. Extent and percentage cover of protected areas by country, up to 2020 (n1), for all site types included in the indicator

 

On land

 (as at 24 July 2020)

At sea

 (as at 25 September 2020)

 

Million ha Percentage Million ha Percentage
England 3.444 26.4% 9.157 39.8%
Scotland 2.331 29.6% 20.817 33.7%
Wales 0.612 29.4% 1.544 50.2%
Northern Ireland 0.402 28.4% 0.243 35.6%
United Kingdom 6.789 27.8% 31.761 35.9%

 

For comparison, the same figures for the terrestrial A/SSSI, MCZ, NCMPA, NNR, Ramsar, Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA) site designations are given in Table C1ii.

Table C1ii. Extent and percentage cover of terrestrial protected areas by country, as at 24 July 2020 (n1) for A/SSSI, MCZ, NCMPA, NNR, Ramsar, SAC and SPA site designations

  On land
  Million ha Percentage
England 0.845 6.5%
Scotland 1.388 17.6%
Wales 0.220 10.6%
Northern Ireland 0.139 9.8%
United Kingdom 2.592 10.6%

Table C1ii in effect excludes the landscape scale site types (AONBs, NSAs and National Parks). It only shows the terrestrial sites, as these are not considered to support marine features directly, so the marine figures would not change compared to table C1i.

The on-land extent measure shows an increase in 1980, reflecting the designation of 40 NSAs in Scotland. Terrestrial changes since 1995 mainly reflect the establishment of SACs and SPAs, plus the designation of 2 National Parks in Scotland in 2002/03. There has been a large increase in the extent of MPAs since 1995, but especially since 2010. In 1995 and 1996, the first set of sites under the EU Habitats Directive extending below mean high water were established. These inshore and coastal SACs may also have a terrestrial/freshwater component, but the calculations to create the indicator split them between the on-land and at-sea lines in the indicator. Marine sites totalling 5 MHa were designated in 2016 and 2017 for harbour porpoise. In May 2019, a third tranche of 41 MCZs in English and Welsh waters were designated covering a total of 1.17 MHa. In July 2020 the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was extended by 38 square kilometres – the first change to an AONB since 1991. In September 2020 a very large deep water offshore Marine Protected Area (MPA) was designated by the Scottish Government which added 9.9 MHa to the indicator. These additions were included in the 2020 calculations in order to ensure that the extent indicator reflected the most recent data available at the time of publication.

In 2019, a new projection was used for the spatial data to provide consistency with figures being produced on MPAs. This has a negligible effect on the areas calculated. While drafting the fiche it was discovered that the 2018 results were in error due to a small shift in the spatial location of one of the designations when preparing the overlapping geometry, which led to an increase in the total area. This was corrected in the 2019 publication, but means that the results are not directly comparable with the previous publication.

More importantly, the basis for the split between the terrestrial and marine lines in the indicator was also amended in 2019. Previously the split between marine and terrestrial was taken to be at the high-water mark (see the technical document for details). However, this meant that sites which straddle the high-water mark contributed to both the marine and terrestrial extent lines, regardless of what features they protect above or below high-water. From 2019, a marine ‘components’ approach has been implemented. This identifies which sites protect features (or ‘components’) in the marine environment (below high water), and therefore qualify the site as an MPA. Sites which straddle the high-water mark continue to contribute to the terrestrial line, but only those with marine components contribute to the marine line. The main change to the indicator is to the rise in the extent measures in 1980, which was due to the designation of 40 NSAs in Scotland. This rise now only occurs in the terrestrial extent line, as these sites are not considered to be MPAs, even though their boundaries are drawn to include areas below the high-water mark. The entire series has been recalculated, so this is consistent between years in the presentation in the 2019 publication. Effectively this approach means that AONBs, NSAs, and National Parks only contribute to the terrestrial line, as they are considered as terrestrial designations only. In addition, intertidal areas for some other sites, such as SSSIs, will not be represented in either line as they are below high water (the terrestrial cut-off), but do not have marine features designated.

Condition

A/SSSIs are designated with the aim of conserving specific biological or geological features. A monitoring programme was initiated in 1998 to evaluate the outcomes of management action and conservation policy. Under this programme, the condition of these features is assessed on a rolling cycle against agreed standards. The indicator (Figure C1ii) identifies the proportion of these features – by feature or by area – that are in a desired state (favourable) or have appropriate management but are yet to have regained their favourable status (unfavourable-recovering). The underpinning legislation for A/SSSIs extends to low water, so the condition part of the indicator is mainly based on terrestrial features. 

The first collation of results (to March 2005) was published by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in 2006. The cut-off date is 31 March each year unless otherwise stated. The condition graph is cumulative and includes assessments from a number of years. As new assessments are completed they replace the previous ones; so the graph is a snapshot of the condition of the site network at that point in time. Both unfavourable-recovering and favourable assessments are shown in the graph, as it will take many years to reverse previous declines in species populations, or to restore the ecological functioning of habitats.

Assessment of the condition indicator is based on the sum of favourable and unfavourable-recovering condition. The background section includes information for protected areas designated under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. More detailed information is available on individual country websites (see web links below).

Improved analysis in 2017 allowed the weighting to be based on the extent of protected areas in the month of the condition data, rather than just the year, increasing accuracy.

(n1) terrestrial sites as at 31 March 2020, with the exception of an extension to the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB calculated on 24 July 2020.
marine sites – calculated as at 25 September 2020 due to the addition of a large MPA in Scottish waters designated on 25 September before publication of the 2020 UK Biodiversity Indicators.

Top

Relevance

Designation and management of protected areas are key mechanisms for taking action to reverse the loss of biodiversity. These protected areas cover many of the most valuable sites for biodiversity in the UK with associated legal mechanisms for safeguarding habitats and species. Wider landscape designations have a number of purposes, including conservation and public enjoyment. 

In a densely populated country like the UK, where the landscape and habitats have been modified by centuries of use, protected areas often need to be actively managed to ensure the species and habitats they contain persist into the future. The condition indicator is a measure of the outcomes of management action and conservation policy on protected areas.

Top

Background

Extent

The extent of protected areas in Figure C1i is the combined (net) area of:

  • nationally designated National Nature Reserves (NNR), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in England, Scotland and Wales, and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) in Northern Ireland;
  • Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in English, Welsh and Northern Irish waters, and Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (NCMPA) in Scottish waters;
  • internationally designated Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC, including candidate Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Community Importance) under the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives respectively, and sites designated under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar); and
  • wider landscape designations: Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), National Scenic Areas (NSA) (Scotland), and National Parks (England, Scotland and Wales).

There is considerable geographic overlap between these designations: for example, many sites are designated as A/SSSI, SAC and SPA. Almost all Ramsar sites are underpinned by the A/SSSI designation, and most Ramsar sites are also SPAs. The calculation method used identifies non-overlapping areas or ‘polygons’, and thus ensures that each protected area contributes only once to the total area. Coastal sites are split at mean high water (mean high water spring for Scotland), and contribute to both the on-land and at-sea lines in Figure C1i as appropriate. The total line on Figure C1i is the net area of all of the protected areas (shown in Figure C1iii). Further information about individual site types can be found by following the web links given below. 

Figure C1iii. Map of UK terrestrial and marine protected areas, as at 25 September 2020.

Map showing the location of UK terrestrial and marine protected areas as at 25 September 2020.

Note: Includes the following site designations: Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Northern Ireland), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England and Scotland), National Nature Reserves, Marine Conservation Zones, Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas, Ramsar Sites, Special Areas of Conservation (including candidate Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Community Importance), Special Protection Areas, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Scenic Areas and National Parks. 

Source: Joint Nature Conservation Committee, based on its own data and data from Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency and NatureScot.

Condition

The UK-wide Common Standards Monitoring programme is undertaken by the statutory nature conservation bodies to assess the effectiveness of management action aimed at maintaining or restoring the features for which protected areas have been designated. The data presented for this indicator are for the biological (species and habitats) features only; the monitoring of condition of features is also undertaken for geological features. Conservation objective(s) (sometimes called performance indicators) will have been set for each feature or site. The monitoring tests whether these objectives have been met.

Sites may have one or more interest features on them and each of these is assessed separately. Conservation objectives (or performance indicators) are developed by identifying the key attributes which make up or support the feature (e.g. extent, quality, supporting processes), and setting targets for them. Each attribute is then measured and compared against the target value set. If all the targets are met, the feature is in favourable condition. Human activities which are likely to be affecting the site adversely, and the conservation measures taken to maintain or restore the site, are also recorded. Sampling and assessment methods may vary between countries.

In order to calculate a UK indicator, the country condition results, presented as the percentage in ‘favourable’ or unfavourable-recovering condition, have been weighted by the proportion of the protected area network in each country. In 2017, this weighting was adjusted to the end of the financial year (except for 2006 and 2008) to match the end of financial year date stamp of the condition data. Further details are available in the accompanying technical document.

Sites or features which have yet to be assessed are excluded from the indicator; effectively this means the indicator is based on terrestrial and coastal features. Figures C1iv and C1v provide analogous information to that in Figure C1ii, but for features protected on sites designated under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives respectively (SACs and SPAs).

Figure C1iv. Cumulative proportion of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) in ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable-recovering’ condition, 2005 to 2020.

A stacked bar chart showing how the cumulative proportion of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) in ‘favourable’ and ‘unfavourable-recovering’ condition has changed between 2005 and 2020.  The proportion of areas/sites in favourable condition has increased slightly from 41.5% in 2005 to 42.8% in 2020, whereas the proportion in unfavourable-recovering condition has increased from 16.6% to 30.8% over the same time period.

Notes:

  1. England figures based on area; Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland figures based on number of features.
  2. Based on data to the end of March, except in 2006 and 2008, when data are to end of December. Data were not collated in 2007.
  3. Imputation has been used to calculate the breakdown between favourable and unfavourable-recovering for Northern Ireland for the years 2009 to 2011, and for Wales for the years 2008 to 2012.
  4. Includes candidate Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Community Importance (except Scotland). Includes coastal but not offshore sites.

Source:  Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, NatureScot.

Figure C1v. Cumulative proportion of Special Protection Areas (SPA) in 'favourable' or 'unfavourable-recovering' condition, 2005 to 2020.

A stacked bar chart showing how the cumulative proportion of Special Protection Areas (SPA) in 'favourable' and 'unfavourable-recovering' condition has changed between 2005 and 2020.  The proportion of areas/sites in favourable condition has fallen slightly from 63.2% in 2005 to 51.5% in 2020, whereas the proportion in unfavourable-recovering condition has increased from 9.4% to 27.0% over the same time period.

Notes:

  1. England figures based on area; Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland figures based on number of features.
  2. Based on data to the end of March, except in 2006 and 2008, when data are to end of December. Data were not collated in 2007.
  3. The figures for December 2006 were calculated by imputation based on the figures in March 2005 and December 2008 for England, as a breakdown was not provided.
  4. Includes coastal but not offshore sites.

Source:  Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, NatureScot.

The proportion of European sites in favourable or unfavourable-recovering condition increased from 58% in 2005 to 74% in 2020 for SACs, and from 73% in 2005 to 79% in 2020 for SPAs. The proportion in unfavourable-recovering condition has increased from 17% in 2005 to 31% in 2020 for SACs, and from 9% to 27% for SPAs. This change reflects improved management of sites, but is also affected by a greater number of sites/features having been assessed over time. Significant effort has been put into targeted conservation effort, including agreement of the management required with land-owners/occupiers.

Note that there was a change in the weighting used for this measure (see technical document) since the publication in 2015, and that the results are not therefore directly comparable. Improved analysis in 2017 allowed the weighting to be based on the extent of protected areas in the month of the condition data, rather than just the year, increasing accuracy.

Top

Goals and Targets

Aichi Targets for which this is a primary indicator

Strategic Goal C. To improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.

Aichi Target 11 icon

Target 11: By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascapes.

Aichi Targets for which this is a relevant indicator

Strategic Goal B. Reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use.

Aichi Target 5 icon

Target 5: By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation is significantly reduced.

Aichi Target 6 icon

Target 6: By 2020 all fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably, legally and applying ecosystem based approaches, so that overfishing is avoided, recovery plans and measures are in place for all depleted species, fisheries have no significant adverse impacts on threatened species and vulnerable ecosystems and the impacts of fisheries on stocks, species and ecosystems are within safe ecological limits.

Aichi Target 8 icon

Target 8: By 2020, pollution, including from excess nutrients, has been brought to levels that are not detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity.

 

Strategic Goal C. To improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.

Aichi Target 12 icon

Target 12: By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.

Top

Reference Title 
Joint Nature Conservation Committee

Common Standards Monitoring Programme

Resource hub

Joint Nature Conservation Committee Broad information on Surveillance and Monitoring
Natural England Condition information
NatureScot Information service
Natural Resources Wales Protected areas of land and sea
Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs-Northern Ireland Protected areas
The National Association for
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Introduction and links
National Parks Introduction and links
National Scenic Areas NatureScot, Introduction and links
Marine Conservation Zones Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Site Information
Nature Protection Marine Protected Areas Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Site Information
Ramsar Convention Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Site Information

Top

Downloads

Download the Datasheet and Technical background document from JNCC's Resource Hub.

Top

Last updated: October 2020

Latest data available:  

Extent data (C1a and C1b)

  • terrestrial sites as at 31 March 2020, with the exception of an extension to the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB calculated on 24 July 2020.
  • marine sites – calculated as at 25 September 2020 due to the designation of a large MPA in Scottish waters.

Condition data (C1c) – 31 March 2020

 

This content is available on request as a pdf in non-accessible format. If you wish for a copy please go to the enquiries page.

Categories:

UK Biodiversity Indicators 2020

Published: .

Back to top