What have the Romans Protected Areas ever done for us?

A walk in the country is a time to take in the views, the natural history of the landscape, birds, insects and flowers. But faced with signs proclaiming AONB, Heritage Coast, SSSI, SAC, SPA, N2K, Ramsar, Biosphere, SNCI, World Heritage and SAM*, you’d be forgiven for retreating to the pub and drowning your sorrows at the plethora of  conservation labels. Why don’t they just leave it alone and let nature get on with it? 

Sadly, nature is rarely allowed to do so, not least because the pressure to develop is near irresistible. Short-term gain speaks louder than long-term public interest. Town and Country Planning balances these interests in a democratic environment. On the liberal principle that most things are permitted unless one can show “demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance”, it is essential to identify those interests and agree their importance. Hence National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest etc were established to guide land use planning in sensitive landscapes. 

Town & Country Planning determines broad land use but not the detail of land management, and, in the days before protected sites were established, they did not stop the decline of wildlife and loss of ancient monuments and sites to farming and forestry practices. Much of that happened because landowners and managers were uninformed of the values attached to the land. . So, conservationists developed criteria to evaluate the land and a series of designations (SSSI, Scheduled Ancient Monuments, Listed buildings etc) to notify landowners of important features on their land so that, with foresight, damage could be avoided or mitigated or in the last resort compensated. Much can be achieved by cooperation when people have the right information and encouragement but on occasion Government must also regulate. Without these designations, damage continues in our countryside.  I remember assuming that a rare coastal heath, home of the marsh fritillary, was well protected under Ministry of Defence ownership. But on discovering that the area had been turned to mud by 200 wintering cattle (and tonnes of of silage ), we were met with official disinterest for months until the area was legally notified as SSSI. 

These protected areas continue to be a priority. They are the crown jewels and sometimes they need a little polishing. So when limited conservation resources are available, these are the areas that must be considered first. Often the importance of their features is dependent on continuing management, perhaps haymaking, perhaps re-roofing. Damage by overgrazing, neglect or by invasive alien species often needs to be countered and some of this costs real money. 

But protected areas don’t exist in isolation. They receive material, water, energy and migrating species of various kinds over the years. If they are isolated in a sea of inhospitable ground, their interest may decline, so increasingly we are seeking ways to maintain or restore habitats at a landscape-scale and restore ecological connections.

Few would deny that there is a long way to go. Wales failed its target “to halt biodiversity loss by 2010” (along with the rest of the world) and failed to put its internationally important sites into favourable management. But missing conservation targets doesn’t mean we abandon conservation any more than missing health targets means we abandon healthcare! We just try harder. In England, the “Lawton Review” has called for protected areas to be bigger, better and more connected. The Welsh Government is planning better management our environmental resources, making the health and quality of our natural environment a focus for everyone – not just conservationists - and a key part of decision making. This Natural Environment Framework, called A Living Wales, hinges on getting all sectors of society to take responsibility for caring for the environment and valuing all it provides.

Without protected areas, it’s safe to say that A Living Wales would be starting from a much more impoverished position.

* Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area, Natura 2000, Site of Nature Conservation Interest, Scheduled Ancient Monument.