The value of specially designated sites in conserving biodiversity has been a hotly debated issue for many years in the UK and elsewhere. The debate recently has been given fresh impetus in England by the creation of Natural England, the new Government Agency responsible for the protection and enhancement of the natural environment, and the challenges facing the management of designated sites resulting from the increasingly tangible effects of climate change. In the freshwater environment, the role of designated sites is under a particular spotlight because of the implementation of the European ‘Water Framework Directive’, which aspires to holistic, ecologically based management of aquatic habitats.
This paper explores the underlying premises of, and rationale for, special site designations for wildlife and provides a frank account of the inevitable clash of management philosophies that designations create in the freshwater environment. It draws on experiences of managing designated freshwater sites in England over the past decade from within English Nature, the former statutory agency for nature conservation (succeeded by Natural England). The issues and principles discussed, are however, highly relevant to the rest of the UK, other European Member States and countries further afield.
A positive role is outlined for designated sites in freshwater conservation, which addresses these management conflicts in a way that not only meets Government obligations towards these sites but also paves the way for informed, progressive management of the wider freshwater resource. As part of this account, attempts are made to clarify the relationship between key biodiversity-related policy drivers in the freshwater environment and to explain how the spectre of climate change can be addressed within designated site management. The importance of strategic freshwater science, collaboratively designed and funded, in maximising the value of the designated freshwater site network to the wider freshwater habitat resource, is stressed.