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
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
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
Biodiversity Framework’ was published on 17 July 2012. It
has been produced by JNCC and
Defra, on behalf of the Four Countries’ Biodiversity
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
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
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
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
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.