Introduction to the guidance manual
17. Assessing trends in condition
 
 
 
 
 
The critical distinction to be made when judging the condition of interest features on statutory sites is between favourable and unfavourable condition. However, the framework of condition categories agreed as part of common standards monitoring includes sub-categories relating to trends in feature condition. If a feature is assessed as being in unfavourable condition, it is important to be able to judge whether it is recovering, stable, or declining. This is critical to informing decisions about the management of sites.
 
17.1 Habitats and earth heritage features
For the 'unfavourable - recovering', 'unfavourable - no change' and 'unfavourable - declining' categories, the basis for assessment is the availability of evidence which demonstrates a trend. This evidence will often be that obtained by comparing the attribute targets with baseline information or by information obtained on a previous monitoring occasion. However, evidence can also be obtained by inference. For example, information on recent and current grazing levels and their impact on the condition of heathland vegetation may be provided by the structure of heather and other dwarf shrubs, including the presence of distinctive growth forms and the proportion of grazed shoots. In woodlands, the growth of seedlings/saplings will provide an indication of grazing levels and the potential for woodland regeneration. Evidence of recent removal of non-native trees indicates the composition attribute target may be improving. Wherever possible, attributes of this type have been included in the habitat guidance, but suitable attributes are not available for all management factors.
 
Finally, knowledge of the management regime and other factors affecting the site (e.g. air pollution) can also contribute to judgements about whether a feature is likely to be recovering or declining. For example, if an area of degraded blanket bog (in unfavourable condition) is being grazed heavily and regularly burnt, it is fairly safe to assume that its condition will not be improving. However, this approach relies on being confident that particular management treatments will lead to certain changes in condition, rather than directly assessing any changes.
 
Assessing condition in the 'recovering', 'no change' and 'declining' sub-categories at the time of the first assessment, can be achieved using the evidence referred to above.
 
In subsequent six year cycles, trends in condition could be assessed in various ways:
  • changes in the number of attributes 'failing';
  • trends in the number of samples 'failing';
  • trends in the values of attributes;
  • changes in the area of the habitat/extent of landform/rock exposure in favourable/unfavourable condition.

 

Different habitats have different response times - it may be possible to restore some grassland vegetation within a few years, but blanket bog may take decades - and the ecology of a feature needs to be taken into account when judging condition. The rate of progress from unfavourable to favourable condition will also be determined by management. For example, on upland heathland the complete removal of livestock will probably lead to favourable condition being attained much more rapidly than if more modest stock reductions are put in place. The end-point will be the same, but the rate of progress will be markedly different.
 
Ultimately, it is for the person carrying out the assessment to examine the evidence and formulate a view based upon it. They then need to record their reasons for their view. If the evidence appears dubious or weak as regards any trend, an assessment of no change is to be preferred.
 
17.2 Species
Species present particular problems, including the often poorly understood relationships between species populations and their habitat, and the difficulty in interpreting quantitative population measurements given the widely fluctuating population dynamics of many species. For many species, it may be impossible to use population attributes to determine the sub-categories in any meaningful way, and other evidence will have to be considered when assessing trends for these. For example, it may be possible to infer recovery from improvements in one or more of the habitat attributes. Where possible, the guidance for species features will give advice on how to evaluate trends.
 
17.3 Unfavourable Recovering
The generality of the foregoing remarks apply to undertaking the assessment of feature condition in relation to the Unfavourable Recovering category. At first assessment a view will be formed after considering the available direct and indirect evidence to determine whether the feature is, in fact, recovering. Where management has been put in place to address all the factors preventing the feature from returning to favourable condition, and in the best judgement of the assessor such a return will occur in due course, the feature should be assessed as falling in the unfavourable recovering category, notwithstanding that full recovery may take several years. However, a distinction is made here between management leading to full recovery and that which is limited to some improvements. For recovery, remedial measures should have been taken to address all failing attributes; recovery will not occur if only some of the attributes have been addressed. While the latter will lead to improvement, it will not lead to favourable condition being attained, and features in this condition should be assessed as falling in the unfavourable no change category.

17.4 Favourable recovered
As soon as the favourable condition threshold is exceeded, the state changes from unfavourable recovering to favourable recovered. Common Standards Monitoring should not be expected to determine if the management is correct, merely point out if the condition of a feature on a site is as we wish it to be. Although it is undesirable for a feature to fluctuate between favourable and unfavourable conditions, what this may mean is that the management of the site/feature is failing the feature in some way.
 
17.5 Partially Destroyed
It is not unusual for the condition of a feature within a protected area to vary between different parts of the site. This might have been the case at designation or have happened subsequently. If the condition of part of a feature is considered to be, for whatever reason, beyond restoration, it will cease to be a target for future management actions and is consequently not usefully monitored from that point onwards.
 
The partially destroyed condition should then be applied to that part of the feature and that part will be excluded from future condition assessment. Such an assessment would need to be accompanied by corresponding changes to any variables in attributes or targets (e.g. extent) within the conservation objectives for the remainder of the feature. The partially destroyed category can apply to all types of features. For habitats, it may apply because of permanent habitat loss within the site. A species example might be permanent loss of part of a population because of factors acting outside of the site such as climate change. Within the Earth sciences, the category might apply to loss of part of a mineral or fossil feature.
Use of the partially destroyed category is important in order that destroyed parts of a feature on a site do not mask and detract from the condition of remaining viable feature components. Without this category one could envisage a situation where the destruction of part of a feature resulted in permanently unfavourable condition of that feature and, therefore, removed incentives to manage the remainder.
 
There are some practical issues that need to be resolved in handling and reporting use of this category:
 
  • It is important that the extent of a partially destroyed feature is reported even though it would not be subject to monitoring. This means that partially destroyed features will be reported as two separate elements (including when the first assessment at which the feature is discovered to be damaged), one a constant partially destroyed element, and the second the condition of the remainder of the feature (which might be any of the favourable or unfavourable states).
  • It is important that partially destroyed is not applied to unfavourable components of a feature simply to avoid long and intensive management programmes. Where possible, guidance for features will use attributes and targets capable of determining the issue of whether a feature is partially destroyed.

 

17.6 Destroyed
The same principles apply to the use of the destroyed condition category, except that it relates to an entire feature. If a feature is considered to be, for whatever reason, beyond restoration, then it should be reported as having been destroyed. In this instance, the practical implication is that no management will take place to restore the feature and, if this is the sole feature on a site, the site will cease to be monitored.
 
There are obvious scenarios in which a feature, or part of it, has been destroyed beyond restoration, such as due to complete loss of habitat from erosion, excavation or permanent covering (e.g. roads). In such cases, not only will the feature itself change, but the processes that are essential to support it will have been irretrievably lost. This applies equally to habitat and species features.
 
When a feature, or part of it, has been destroyed, but the underlying processes that supported it remain viable, then it may be possible to restore it. In this circumstance, the feature cannot be considered truly destroyed as it is likely to re-establish and so it should be regarded as unfavourable. Examples might include: the loss of a plant species due to herbicide application, loss of trees from wind-throw, loss of a bird species due to disturbance events, loss of an amphibian due to a pollution event, etc. However, there are limits to the kind of management that could be undertaken to restore a feature and if a feature is unlikely to re-establish then generally it should be considered destroyed. Careful consideration will need to be given to which state to use when the impact on the feature comes from beyond the site boundary. The work necessary to enable restoration or re-establishment to take place may be difficult or long term; this should not be an excuse to use the destroyed categories; these should only be used when the feature cannot be restored.
 
It is recommended that all cases where a feature is considered to be either partially destroyed or destroyed should be reviewed by the relevant advisory staff to ensure consistency in these assessments.