Back to basics
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity is simply the web of life on Earth. It comprises a
hugely diverse range of species, genes and ecosystems.
Species include animals, plants and micro-organisms such as
bacteria. They range in size from single-celled organisms to blue
whales and giant redwoods. There are estimated to be millions of
different species on Earth, although many of them have not yet been
described by scientists.
The distribution of species is determined by natural factors
like climate and geology but in many cases it has been altered by
human influence. Different species interact with each other, and
with their environment, to form ecosystems, such as forests,
deserts and grasslands.
Not all individuals of a particular species are identical. Much
of this variation is caused by genetic diversity. For example, a
species may include different variants adapted to specific
Biodiversity has a critical role, and economic value, in
supporting the basic services upon which human life depends. For
example, biodiversity provides food, timber, fuel and fibre for
clothing. Without biodiversity, we would not have fertile soil or
clean water, crops would not be pollinated and diseases would not
For more information visit the Convention on Biological Diversity
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, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species and the Convention for the Protection of the Marine
Environment of the North-East Atlantic (the OSPAR
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 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.
They are complemented by a UK strategic framework and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
How is nature conservation delivered?
In the UK nature conservation is delivered by a partnership of
Government, statutory bodies and non-governmental
The legislative and policy framework is set by Government – the
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra),
the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly 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 (an executive agency of the Department of the Environment)
has broadly similar responsibilities and the Council for Nature
Conservation and the Countryside provides advice to the department.
UK-wide and international nature conservation functions are
undertaken by JNCC.
Many other Government bodies also make an important
contribution, including organisations with wider environmental
remits like the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environmental
Protection Agency 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 by managing nature reserves,
assessing the status of the UK’s biological and geological
diversity, influencing policy development and other activities.
Important contributions to UK nature conservation are also made
by academic institutions, industry and business and the general