Back to basics


What is biodiversity?

Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns that it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life, of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend, providing a large number of goods and services that sustain our lives.


Biodiversity consists of hierarchical levels, encompassing the range of landscapes and ecosystems found on the planet, the communities of organisms found within them; the variety of animal, plant and microorganism species of which these communities consist; and the genetic differences within each species. All of these levels are linked by natural (or semi-natural, or human-induced) processes, from gene-flow at the genetic level through to successional habitat change at the landscape level.


It is the combination of life forms and their interactions with each other, and with the rest of the environment, that has made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans. However, biodiversity is threatened by many factors, including habitat destruction and degradation, pollution, climate change and introduced species. The loss of biodiversity affects food supplies, opportunities for tourism and recreation, sources of medicines, and energy. It also interferes with essential ecological functions.


For more information visit the Convention on Biological Diversity website.


What drives UK nature conservation?


Nature conservation in the UK is driven by a wide range of policies, legislation and agreements.


At a global scale, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) promotes the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s biological diversity. There are also various other international agreements or conventions that are concerned with specific species or ecosystems, issues that affect biodiversity or geographical areas. Examples include the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (the OSPAR Convention).


In October 2010, at the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) of the CBD, held in Nagoya, Japan, a revised and updated strategic plan to address biodiversity loss up to 2020 (‘Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020’) was adopted, along with 20 ‘Aichi Targets’.


Within the European Union, the Habitats and Birds Directives deal directly with nature conservation. Other legislation, such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, has wider environmental objectives. The EU Biodiversity Action Plan provides a framework for action by EU institutions and Member States.


In 2011, in response to the updated CBD’s ‘Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020’, a new European strategy for biodiversity was published, to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems in the EU by 2020.  The strategy includes six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal.


In the UK nature conservation is mainly a devolved responsibility.  England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own strategies for biodiversity and the environment.  Obligations arising from Treaties and Conventions remain the responsibility of the UK government, with the devolved administrations responsible for implementing obligations that concern devolved matters. 


In response to the revised and updated ‘Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020’, published by the CBD in October 2010, and the EU biodiversity strategy launched in May 2011, a new ‘UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework’ was published on 17 July 2012.  It has been produced by JNCC and Defra, on behalf of the Four Countries’ Biodiversity Group. 


The framework is designed to show how the work of the four UK countries joins up with work at a UK level to achieve the ‘Aichi targets’ and the aims of the EU biodiversity strategy.  It identifies the activities required to complement the country biodiversity strategies, and where work in the country strategies contributes to international obligations.  The development of the framework reflects a revised direction for nature conservation, towards an approach which aims to consider the management of the environment as a whole, and to acknowledge and take into account the value of nature in decision-making. 




How is nature conservation delivered?


n the UK, nature conservation is delivered by a partnership of government, statutory bodies and non-governmental organisations.


The legislative and policy framework is set by government – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in England, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.  UK-wide and international aspects are the responsibility of Defra.


Within each of the four countries of the UK there are statutory bodies that are responsible for delivering nature conservation on the ground and advising government. Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales perform these functions in England, Scotland and Wales respectively.  Each operates as a non-departmental public body at arm’s-length from Government.  In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), an executive agency of the Department of the Environment, has broadly similar responsibilities and the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside (CNCC) provides advice to the department.  JNCC undertakes many UK-wide and international nature conservation functions, such as providing advice to government on the development and implementation of policies for, or affecting nature conservation in the UK and internationally, providing advice and disseminating knowledge on nature conservation issues affecting the UK and internationally, and commissioning or supporting relevant research .


Many other Government bodies also make an important contribution, including organisations with wider environmental remits such as the Environment Agency (EA), the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), and the Forestry Commission. Increasingly, emphasis is being placed on bringing biodiversity conservation and environmental protection into all government activities.


Non-governmental voluntary organisations (NGOs) also have a crucial role to play. They do it through activities such as managing nature reserves, assessing the status of the UK’s biological and geological diversity, and influencing policy development.  Important contributions to UK nature conservation are also made by academic institutions, industry and business and the general public, through carrying out research, collecting data, undertaking appropriate business practices, making particular lifestyle choices, and volunteering.