30% of our land for wildlife, what does this mean?

, 29 September 2020
30% of our land for wildlife, what does this mean?
Old Lodge Nature Reserve © Tom Lee

By Henri Brocklebank

Director of Conservation

The Government has committed to dedicating 30% of land for nature in the UK.  This is, of course, a welcome ambition, and due to the dedicated hard work of numerous organisations and academics to bring the ecological crisis to the top table, globally and nationally.  However we must not forget that this announcements sits against a backdrop of UK failure and contradictions.  The real fate of nature, and the future success of this announcement relies not on a percentage, but on the depth of the intention through all levels of government.

The rate of extinction has been rising dramatically. It is reckoned to be now happening at 100 times the natural evolutionary rate - and is accelerating. 
Sir David Attenborough September 2020

Understanding the problem:  

The World Economic Forum estimates that half of the most likely and impactful global risks of climate change are linked to nature. The 30% target comes from a joint statement on a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people – to be delivered in tandem with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. This 30% New Deal for Nature and People, that the UK is now signed up to, simply has to work.  

Have we been here before? Yes, I’m sorry to say we have, and the urgency then was not enough to make it work. Remember the Rio Summit (1992), remember Kyoto (2005)? A seriously impressive array of failed targets (globally and nationally). Failed because there simply was not the funding or prioritisation from the top to make it happen. Great intentions counterbalanced with contradictory approaches.

Making it meaningful:

Yes, the UK signing up to this global target is vital, but we need to remember that 30% for nature should be taken as 30% for fully functioning nature. Simply adding up degraded fragments of natural habitat, is not going to meet this target. Only ambitious, and intentional restoration, creation and reconnection is going to serve the intention of the global approach. And this is an approach that needs to span all government departments and all public bodies, on land, and equally critically, at sea.

Statistics are already being thrown around, about how much of the UK is already protected. But a statistic based on how much land is in current protected designations is no reflection on the condition of these areas or their ability to act as part of a broader functional network for wildlife. Here in Sussex we know that around 27% of our land is in conservation ownership, or is designated for wildlife, or is mapped as being a ‘priority’ habitat. That should mean that we’ve nearly hit our target?  But this is no measure of functional and connected nature, it is not an index of nature’s recovery. It is in fact a perfect reflection of the shifting baseline of nature. If we think that we are in a good place for wildlife, think again. 

In Sussex we have numerous internationally important wildlife sites that are not in favourable condition for wildlife. We have national treasures of sites that are struggling to maintain their wildlife value and our suite of 600+ local wildlife sites is under constant threat. If we look at maps of this 27% we see little connection, and failing ecosystem services, like water quality, flood resilience and species diversity

We know that 41% of British species are in decline. This isn’t even long term decline. This has happened in just the last few decades. In our lifetimes. This single statistic tells us everything we need to know about how to apply a 30% target.

The announcement of 30% of land dedicated for nature can be a turning point for nature’s future. But as Wildlife Trusts we are aware of all the risks that are rising like a tidal wave against us. We brace ourselves against new legislation on planning, a new agriculture bill and fisheries bill. Is nature at the heart of all of these? As environmental NGOs, we spend a huge amount of time attempting to embed principles for wildlife and make sure these are not watered down as they progress through the legislative process. A measure of the success of today’s announcement will be if we are still fighting for wildlife in national legislation and in local policies in two/ three/ten year’s time. We are currently forced into a protection based approach – we need the space to transform this into recovery, where protection is simply embedded into all public body working. Will today’s announcement enable this?

30% for us is about:

  • Connected and functional nature, not just adding up the fragments. There is an interconnected nature network, robust to (climate) change - a ‘nature recovery network’
  • Its about restoration of existing declining wildlife as well as creation of new connections
  • It is where all sectors, at all levels embed the restoration of nature into their plans and policies and actions
  • Where UK laws uphold the commitment to this approach
  • Where funding enables a meaningful contribution by those willing to make it
  • Measurements that mean something, and show genuine change
  • It is about the other 70%, where wildlife is part of a broader national matrix, is not restored in 30% of our towns, countryside and seas, and neglected elsewhere
  • Irreplaceable and critically endangered assets are recognised and protected for the long term
Leave a comment


  • Emma Kendon:

    Good article, and also a strong response from Dave Goulson yesterday, that the PM’s announcement includes national parks, like the South Downs in spite of the wildlife-depletion we can all see so starkly there (if we, the public, use our eyes that is).
    What do we, the public, have in our toolkit to help lead to that success? Obviously WT membership (and other agencies’ membership), plus active volunteering to rewild, restore & protect, e.g. with OART, plus campaigning, calling out, writing to MP. Anything else?
    Anything useful likely to come of the Levelling Up talks/Kruger paper etc, do we think?

    01 Oct 2020 11:21:00

  • William Jenman:

    It’s hard to tell if this was supposed to be a serious policy announcement or just a soundbite. It’s clear that the government intends to count National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty AONB) towards this target, but these are landscape designations not nature conservation ones. Some protected landscapes are extremely wildlife poor (the Lake District, grazed to death by subsidised sheep, or the Peak District burned to death for intensive grouse shooting and a wildlife crime hotspot, spring to mind) , others like the South Downs have some great wildlife sites in theory but with all the problems Henri has set out. The announcement is so at odds with other recent pro development, anti-regulation, pro intensive commercial shooting messages and policy proposals from Government its very hard not to be cynical.

    01 Oct 2020 11:54:00

  • arthur russell:

    As a youngster in the 50’s, I vividly remember, almost daily, during spring and summer, watching Song and Mistle Thrush, Swallows, Martins and Swifts, Hedgehogs, Weasels, House Sparrows, and Yellowhammers, Wrens, Bank Voles, and Stag beetles, regularly. Poor squashed Hedgehogs were far too common, and the hedges were full of nesting birds. Fields too, full of wild flowers, growing around the perimeters and under the hedges, huge banks of Primrose and swathes of English Bluebells.
    Nowadays , I have to travel to have a chance of seeing these, and even then I often don’t.
    I firmly believe that when the news was published that Hedgehogs have declined by 35%, that the figure is far worse, and bank voles have to be ‘reintroduced’ Swallows Swifts and Martins in steep decline, Weasels and Stoats following the Marten into regional extinction, even our so called ‘Cleaned up’ rivers, no longer support species of fish that even 40 yrs ago were fat and abundant. Walk the Hampshire Avon and try and look for the big barbel, lovely clean water , but few fish to be seen.
    We will be going it alone soon, how I wish I might see fields of grain, and vegetables, and hedgerows returning . My own county West Sussex, still very beautiful, but choked with cars, and heavily interlaced with tarmac and concrete.
    I would foolish to expect things as they were 50 yrs or more ago, but it’s not too late to turn things around , more than a little.
    I’m getting to old to physically help, my knees don’t help much these days, but I can donate a little money, and lobby our MPs.
    One day our Environment will be on everyone’s mind, but let’s hope it won’t be too late by then.

    01 Oct 2020 12:11:00

  • David Phillips:

    Excellent article.When will all Governments eventually realise that merely making more designations and placing lines on maps means little if the habitats and land management practices carried out within them are so poor , damaging or that areas and populations of species are so fragmented that the decline in biodiversity will simply continue.Lets hope for better resourcing, understanding and targeting of actions that will this time yield results. Where are the 30 million indigenous trees we were promised last December? Where are the announcements of real financial support for re wilding schemes?
    However whilst the same Government is ( eg through G Eustace) considering reintroducing neonictinoids in some areas and carrying out unnecessary badger culls and we continue to provide public monies for damaging agricultural practices I unfortunately have my doubts as to real progress. Let’s all keep pressing to improve biodiversity in Sussex and indeed throughout the UK by whatever actions we can – call out our County’s MPs as to where they stand on this!

    01 Oct 2020 13:11:00

  • Michael Evans:

    I am a West Sussex resident, and welcome this discussion. My village of Binsted (Arundal), skirts the South Downs National Park, unexplainably, my property which includes, Ancient Woodland, traditional orchard and countless ‘endangered species’ is not ‘in’ the park! Only yesterday Ecologists representing Highways England, (again) carried out a ‘habitat’ survey of our land. Why? Because the A27 Arundal bypass scheme provides as two of the route options my land. The Devi station caused will be crazy! The scheme itself threatens to wipe out the historic village of Binsted. Roads against nature? Nature won’t stand a chance.

    01 Oct 2020 13:24:00

  • Eve Ashley:

    I now only buy organic seeds and plants for my garden, and have done for a couple of years, so that the insects and other creatures are not compromised. Garden centres don’t have to be sparing with their insecticides and pesticides, and we all have to trust that organic means organic.
    Not being a tidy gardener helps as well, and leaving stones and wood piles for wildlife to live in helps as well.

    01 Oct 2020 13:26:00

  • David Wyatt:

    This is like having a failed business that makes a loss and produces low quality goods that are not fit for purpose. These problems are not solved by adding another 30% to the company’s turnover. As per previous comments, we need to be actively volunteering, rewilding, restoring, protecting, campaigning etc. via our Wildlife Trusts, RSPB etc.

    01 Oct 2020 13:30:00

  • Jo & George Gordon:

    Totally agree. Heard it all before. Would be good to involve local groups in this.

    01 Oct 2020 13:57:00

  • Surely it’s clear that much of our biodiversity has been lost due to the widespread use of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides which obviously are there to kill things, but also encourage large areas of monoculture instead of crop rotations. Don’t blame the farmers, they produce what sells and sadly organic food is not in demand, don’t blame the CAP, the rules changed a long time ago. Europe has a target of 25% of all land organic and the wildlife organisations, organic farmers and conscientious consumers sing from the same hymn sheet, whereas here wildlife organisations seem to favour land sparing, consumers don’t understand the impact their choices have on the wider environment, and organic farming is being sidestepped by policy in favour of greenwashing the existing situation and at the same time reducing food standards. I cannot understand why the connection between healthy food and healthy land is not recognised! A summary of the European report Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe is at https://www.iddri.org/sites/default/files/PDF/Publications/Catalogue%20Iddri/D%C3%A9cryptage/201809-IB1018-TYFAEN_0.pdf

    01 Oct 2020 14:01:00

  • Keith Metcalf:

    They say that only about 12% of England is developed (i.e. housing etc.) They also say that 75% of England is agricultural farming land. I am not sure what the governments commitment to 30% for nature actually means or from where they will get this, but rest assured that whatever is left over after they have used their 30%, the rest will go towards development! Not that I am against house building, after all we nearly all live in one that was built on what was once green-belt! A couple of years ago, HWTs John Durnell made a very clear statement that worried me a great deal when I first heard it. However, the more I thought about what he said, I subsequently realised just how right he was. It was at HWTs ‘Wilding’ focus seminar, where during his talk, he displayed a ‘beautiful countryside scene’ with green rolling fields stretching mile after mile into the distance. After all, who could not admire such a a beautiful countryside scene? He then said something along the lines of, what we see as our green and pleasant land is actually nearly all agricultural land, which is devoid of nearly all wildlife. You could have knocked me over with a feather duster! However, it made me think and I have since started advocating to pressure groups who don’t want their green belt built on that, in actual fact, development will often aid wildlife to return to what previously was stale and barren land with deteriorating soil quality. After all, what new home doesn’t have a garden (often back & front) and I think I have seen figures used by the RSPB that say that well over 50% of all gardens have bird feeders and nest boxes, nectar producing flowers, new hedgerows etc. etc. A very good case can now be made to say that when development takes over green belt, this can so often lead to the enhancement for wildlife – e.g. take 42 new homes on what was once green belt land that previously had intensive single-crops on arable land that, was annually treated with insecticides, herbicides fungicides etc and field edges that had no margins for wildflowers to grow. In other words, farmland is often a sterile environment which has very little interest for wildlife (excluding of course, places like the RSPBs Hope Farm and the Knepp Estate). ……………… It’s okay everyone, ………… I feel better now!!!

    01 Oct 2020 15:51:00

  • Peter Fenn:

    Clearly, it is critical to ensure our MPs understand the situation and our view of it. Has this been done. If not, who is reponsible for making it happen? I am happy to do my bit, but the process has to be managed to prevent duplication of effort or missed opportunities.

    01 Oct 2020 16:22:00

  • Joanna Wyatt:

    Data, statistics and gobbledegook. The PM pledges to protect 30% of the country for wildlife. A sweeping statement. Does he know what percentage of the country is already protected in the hands of the National trust , National Parks and various grades of nature reserves? This begs the question, is our PM keen to hand over the remaining 70% of land to the developers and investors who make major donations to the Conservative party? This simply will not do. In the face of climate change and our crashing biodiversity, we desperately need greater protection for our countryside. In my area of West Sussex, three local developments-two massive housing estates (new towns) and one large commercial retail park, are all being built. These three alone amount to the loss of 1,101 acres of greenfield land. We do NOT need this government’s drastic cuts to the planning services. This will effectively hand over huge amounts of land to the private sector who will be “self regulating” Housing targets will be hyper inflated. No one else will have a say. Maximum profits will be creamed off by building over green fields and this will be a disaster for our environment. Make no mistake, this drive to “build, build, build” has nothing to do with local housing need, it is a bare faced commercial enterprise.

    02 Oct 2020 13:41:00

  • Dawn Penney:

    Angry beyond words at the lack of protection and conservation of our Countryside. With the constant building and bulldozing of our Eco system (HS2) as a very big example, in this Country on any available land for development is absolutely heartbreaking. No thought or respect for wildlife, so therefore the Government are being hypocritical in their agenda and strategies. Appalled that wildlife and our Countryside and History are being destroyed. Disgusted with all in charge of planning and development, who, knowingly are destroying everything that we need to keep, in order to keep the Eco system working, just to profit!
    If the Government actually stood by their promises and also halted building, we wouldn’t have to replace ancient woodlands and plant new trees. Leave nature alone to re group, balance and continue to provide us with the benefits we have been enjoying for centuries!

    03 Oct 2020 10:19:00

  • Chris Chedzpy:

    I’m in my 70s and recall the huge flocks of small birds, mainly house sparrows, that used to gather in the oat fields each summer in the 50s and 60s. Seeing a few sparrows now is a treat. Sky larks, turtle doves and cuckoos were them very common, sadly now gone from our local area. The cause looks all too obvious. Locally fields are either grazed bald by sheep or constantly sprayed with chemicals that eradicate everything bar the crop. Local hedges are virtually destroyed by sheep and aggressive cutting. So sad to see these changes in one lifetime.

    03 Oct 2020 11:37:00

  • richard battson:

    I would like to see a ban on fake grass and concrete replacing nature’s surfacing in private and public areas, ban on chemicals etc for the govt to be serious. The other 70% needs to prioritise nature too

    03 Oct 2020 19:06:00

  • Nick Lear:

    It’s not all gloom, Henri. Yes, 41% of species are in decline since 1970. But you don’t mention the other side of the coin. The State of Nature 2019 report also reveals that 26% have increased and 33% shown little change. It’s sad to see swallows and martins etc manifestly declining recently. But buzzards have in that time gone from none in the county to many in every village. One damselfly and one dragonfly species have appeared here at Knowlands which were unknown in Sussex twenty years ago. Whilst Lesser Spotted woodpeckers have almost disappeared, Great Spotted Woodpeckers are more widespread now. Here at Knowlands red-listed house sparrows abound, as do nightingales. We regularly see Red Kites and Ravens, unheard of in my youth. Nil desperandum.

    Yes Nick, there are definitely good news stories, but sadly they are set against a challenging overall backdrop as the recent announcement regarding the quality of UK rivers shows us. My focus on gloom in that article is to make the point that if 30% is applied well, that would be fantastic, but applied poorly (just create a new national park somewhere and job done), we will be not much further forward in reconnecting the great areas that we have, and restoring those areas where wildlife is so depleted. Enjoy your wildlife haven, and keep on inspiring others to do more. Best wishes to you and your family. Henri

    06 Oct 2020 18:09:00

  • Jackie Altan:

    I think the rewilding at Knepp is a wonderful thing.

    20 Oct 2020 09:09:00