Setting conservation objectives

Natural variation

Discussion and advice on conservation objectives

The development of the management scheme is based upon the advice of the country conservation agencies, which have a special duty to advise the relevant authorities as to the conservation objectives for a site. At the time the sites were proposed, a citation was produced which identified the interest or conservation features for which the site would be designated. The conservation objectives for the site should ensure the interest features are being maintained in a favourable condition on the site. Once the management group has been formed, either voluntarily of formally, the agencies will propose draft objectives for discussion with the aim of establishing agreed objectives.

The following discussion on setting and providing advice on the conservation objectives draws largely from the guidance recently developed by the country conservation agencies (EN et al 1998). In relation to setting conservation objectives, the UK common standards for monitoring designated sites (JNCC 1998) ensure that:

"Conservation objectives will be prepared for interest features on all sites. These objectives will define what constitutes favourable condition of each feature by describing broad targets, which should be met if the feature is to be judged favourable.

Each interest feature of a site will have one or more attributes that can be used to help define favourable condition. For each species these may include population size, structure, habitat requirements and distribution. Attributes of habitats may include area covered, key species, composition and structure and supporting processes.

Broad targets will be identified for those attributes that most economically define favourable condition of the interest feature. Because all features are subject to some degree of change, the targets may express how much change would be accepted while still considering the feature to be in favourable condition. If a feature changes to the extent that it falls outside the thresholds expressed then this acts as a trigger for remedial action or further investigation.

In some cases relatively little may be known about the interest feature so it may be difficult to define favourable condition. In such circumstances the use of current condition will be considered as the definition of favourable condition, in the absence of any evidence that the current condition was unfavourable".

In line with these common standards, the UK country conservation agencies will aim to ensure that when setting conservation objectives, they are:

  • specific - relate to a particular interest feature and define the condition(s) required to satisfy the conservation objective;
  • measurable and reportable - enabling monitoring to be undertaken to determine whether the conservation objectives are being met and for the purposes of Article 17 of the Habitats Directive;
  • realistic - given a reasonable time-frame and application of resources;
  • consistent in approach - the structure of conservation objectives should, as far as is possible, be the same across all European marine sites, and at sites supporting the same interest feature, use similar attributes and targets to describe favourable condition; and
  • comprehensive - the attributes and targets should cover the properties of the interest feature necessary to describe its condition as either favourable or unfavourable.

Natural variation

Country conservation agencies and relevant authorities will need to assess the effectiveness of management measures towards achievement of the conservation objectives, and to do this, they will need to be able to make judgements in the future about how the observed condition compares to the favourable condition of an interest feature. This is complex because over time there are natural variations in the size of species populations and the species composition of habitats.

The scale and extent of natural variation is often difficult to predict so for a number of interest features selected under the Habitats Directive it will be difficult to precisely define favourable condition. In these cases it will be particularly important to exercise caution when defining the favourable condition and perhaps more importantly when subsequently comparing the observed condition with the favourable condition. For some attributes natural variation is cyclic, whilst for others the trend may be successional, for example through the silting up of inner estuaries. These differences will be reflected in the different ways that targets are expressed for interest features.

In many cases the favourable condition of an interest feature will need to refer to the condition of the feature at the time the site was designated and monitoring undertaken relative to this value(s). Over time the understanding of variability should improve with a view to establishing more precise targets for all features in European marine sites. Such information will be produced as a result of surveillance and monitoring and may be augmented by targeted studies. The country conservation agencies will draw on the best available information from all sources, including local expert knowledge.

Discussion and advice on conservation objectives

The conservation objectives for the interest feature of each site will include their associated targets (where such targets have been identified). Discussions will take place with relevant authorities and others on the conservation objectives before finalising the advice, in order to draw on the knowledge and experience of these authorities. For most European marine sites, a management scheme will be developed in wide consultation with interested parties, and conservation objectives will be part of such schemes.

The spatial extent of interest features within a site, and therefore the related conservation objectives and targets, will be mapped with reference to known landmarks or seascape features within the site boundary so that the feature can be unambiguously located. Within the context of the management scheme this could be developed into a zoned approach where activities, interest features and conservation objectives are visually demonstrated in a clear manner. Such zoning may not be applicable to all European marine sites.

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