Developing an informed policy for Natura 2000 rivers in the UK
The implementation of the Habitats Directive has the potential to secure significant benefits for wildlife in European rivers but it also brings many challenges. The designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) has increased the need for improved scientific understanding of the species and habitats of interest and for a better understanding of appropriate management measures.
The national conservation authorities in the UK developed a comprehensive project to address the issues and provide model guidance to all involved in the development of policies and the management of river SACs in the UK. Although the particular habitats and species of interest in the UK were selected for study, the project processes and model guidance for river conservation strategies is of wider European value.
Pooling together expert knowledge
The project ran a number of parallel and complementary actions. First 13 species and one broad habitat type were selected and, for these, experts were drawn in to advise on the preparation of reviews on the ecological requirements of the habitat and species.
The Habitats Directive features of interest covered by the project were;
- White-clawed crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes
- Freshwater pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera
Allis shad Alosa alosa and Twaite shad Alosa fallax
- Bullhead Cottus gobio
- River lamprey Lampetra fluviatilis, brook lamprey Lampetra planeri and sea lamprey Petromyzon marinus
- Desmoulins' whorl snail Vertigo moulinsiana
- Salmon Salmo salar
- Southern damselfly Coenagrion mercuriale
- Floating water-plantain Luronium natans
- Otter Lutra lutra
- Rivers with water crowfoot Ranunculus habitats
Linked to desk-top reviews of the ecological requirements of the species a set of monitoring protocols for each was devised and these were tested during the project on a number of rivers and discussed at technical workshops.
Developing River conservation strategies
One of the strengths of the project lay in matching the scientific elements of the project with a strong focus on stakeholder involvement in the development of River Conservation Strategies for a range of river types in different geographical locations.
A broadly similar methodology was adopted on each site for the building of partnerships to draw up the River Conservation Strategies. Central to the process was the appointment of project officers (five in total) to coordinate the work.
River Conservation Strategies were developed to meet the necessary conservation measures required under Article 6.1 of the Habitats Directive. The Directive does not however prescribe the structures to be used for the development of management plans: the project therefore has tested different models from informal arrangements to more formal working groups. The choice of method is partly determined by levels and type of socio-economic activity and existing levels of trust and confidence.
In all cases, however, whether dealing with the 400km River Eden in Cumbria or rivers of less than 20km in the Highlands of Scotland it proved possible to develop strategies and consensus based on the EU features of interest. Key lessons are presented in the model guidance document. The three key steps common to all strategies are the building of partnerships, information needs and determining management measures.
In terms of partnerships, conservation interests have found a useful ally in fishing interests. Both would like to see clean rivers, free from obstructions, with low silt inputs and a rich aquatic biodiversity. The management responsibilities and interests in rivers are varied and complex so, in all cases, there is a need for good communication between interested parties
The longer term perspective
Although a perceived weakness of the strategies may be that they do not come with a package of funding this does give the strategies the freedom to identify the actual need for funding. In some cases the requirements may be significantly greater than existing funding –leading to the preparation of new project proposals. The strategy for the river Avon, for example, was used successfully to support a bid for LIFE-Nature funding in 2005 for a series of restoration projects.
Overall, the project has risen to the challenges of implementing the requirements of the Habitats Directive on river SACs in the UK. As a result there is a wealth of knowledge on the ecological requirements of species, tested monitoring protocols and a series of pilot River Conservation Strategies. This shared experience is presented in a report ‘Developing River Conservation Strategies –model guidance for Special Areas of Conservation’.
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