Protecting the Arctic

Written evidence submitted by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee

a) A significant proportion of Arctic biodiversity is migratory and is shared with other parts of the world, especially with the UK; we, and other relevant countries, each have reciprocal responsibilities for the conservation of this shared biodiversity ;

b) the rapid changes currently occurring in the Arctic thus have direct consequences for those shared species and populations that winter in the UK;

c) monitoring and surveillance of migratory Arctic wildlife undertaken in the UK can provide highly cost-effective indicators of change in different parts of the Arctic but we need to make better use of such datasets and improve mechanisms for sharing this information with other relevant countries;

d) there are a range of Multi-lateral Environmental Agreements, including the working groups of the Arctic Council, which enable UK data on trends in migratory species to be used to inform the sustainable development of the Arctic and to identify changes occurring there.


1. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the statutory adviser to Government on UK and international nature conservation, on behalf of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. Its work contributes to maintaining and enriching biological diversity, conserving geological features and sustaining natural systems. Our advice is set in the context of the desirability of contributing to sustainable development.

2. We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry. Our comments here focus on highlighting those components of biodiversity that the United Kingdom (UK) shares with the Arctic and for which a better understanding of trends may provide indicators of environmental change in the Arctic. Such indicators might then inform future policy interventions by the UK and other governments and so contribute to measures to achieve the environmental component of sustainable development.

3. Accordingly, our focus is on the final bullet point of the topics identified by the Committee for consideration by the inquiry, namely ‘other opportunities .... for the UK to influence .... sustainable development of the region’ and on the overall aim of the inquiry ‘to ensure that any development of the region is sustainable and takes full account of its impacts on climate change and the environment’.

International agreements

4. A number of international agreements relevant to the Arctic provide opportunities for the UK to have some influence on, and provide evidence in support of, multi-lateral approaches to conserving Arctic biodiversity. We outline recent developments relating to biodiversity below.

5. The UK government is an observer to the Arctic Council (AC). JNCC has links into one of the Arctic Council working groups – namely CAFF [1] (Conservation of Arctic Flora & Fauna) and especially to their seabird working group (CBIRD) in which JNCC is a regular participant. JNCC hosted the annual CBIRD meeting in 2005, and in 2003 organised a joint workshop between CAFF and the UK conservation agencies to explore better ways of collaborative working.

6. A full Arctic Biodiversity Assessment is due to be published by CAFF in 2013. A first step towards that had been a CAFF-produced Arctic Biodiversity Trends Report 2010 [2] , some of whose indicators clearly depend on data gathered outside the Arctic (e.g. red knot). This work is supported by the ongoing Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme [3] (CBMP).

7. Issues relating to Arctic biodiversity have recently been the subject of attention at a number of Multi-lateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).

8. Arctic biodiversity was recently considered at the 15th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Subsidiary Body on Scientific Technical & Technological Advice (SBSTTA 15; November 2011 [4] ). At this meeting, the UK and other EC Member States inter alia sought more specific actions on sharing data on migratory Arctic species, supported greater collaboration between CAFF & CBD and encouraged greater work on ecologically and biologically significant areas (EBSAs) in the Arctic, especially in collaboration with OSPAR [5] Convention.

9. The UK & EC (and many Arctic states) are already engaged in a number of MEAs that enable international cooperation for shared biodiversity – e.g. through Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the Agreement on the conservation of African-Eurasian migratory waterbirds (AEWA) and also through some single species international action plans (e.g. for Greenland white-fronted geese, involving the UK, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland, as well as other waterbirds). AEWA has always seen engagement with Arctic countries as central to the delivery of integrated approaches to the conservation of waterbirds across their whole migratory ranges.

10. The recent CMS Conference of the Parties also called upon their Secretariat (Resolution 10.10 [6] ), to increase its cooperation with the Arctic Council in order to improve understanding of the impacts of changes on migratory species and to ensure designation of critically important areas. This CMS meeting also referred specifically to the Arctic in two other Resolutions (Resolution 10.15 global programme of work on cetaceans; 10.19 migratory species conservation in the light of climate change).

11. The Ramsar Convention on wetlands has sought to promote integrated ‘flyway’-scale approaches to the conservation of migratory waterbirds, linking conservation needs in the Arctic with those elsewhere on migratory flyways (e.g through Resolution X.22 Promoting international cooperation for the conservation of waterbird flyways); the UK has been supportive of such initiatives and their follow-up actions.

12. The OSPAR Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic aims inter alia to establish an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in each of its five identified regions. Region I comprises Arctic waters, and to date, three large MPAs have been designated there, with a further seven nominated. Work is in progress within OSPAR to identify a suite of Ecological Quality Objectives (EcoQOs), including one such indicator for seabird populations. A seabird population EcoQO for Region I awaits development but would necessarily be a collaborative exercise with the UK and others.

Shared biodiversity

13. The UK shares its biodiversity with the Arctic in two ways.

14. First, we are within the range of many species that have a circumpolar Arctic distribution but which also have outlying native populations within the UK. These include species such as Arctic char and some relict Arctic-alpine plants typical especially of the Scottish uplands. Stresses on such populations here, such as from climate change, are unlikely to indicate changes happening in the Arctic but might provide an indication of how populations respond to environmental changes.

15. Second, and more significantly, many Arctic species, such as birds and marine mammals, are migratory and spend much of the year in non-Arctic countries who thus share with their Arctic counterparts reciprocal responsibility for their conservation. The UK is especially important in this respect as, every winter, we host very significant numbers of birds from seven of the eight Arctic countries (the only exception being from Alaska, USA [7] ). Several million individuals of 85 species of Arctic bird winter in, or migrate through, the UK (e.g. Figure 1). For some swan, goose and wader species, the UK (with Ireland) support large proportions or even whole populations in winter (e.g. Figure 2).

16. Of 25 breeding seabird species that breed in the UK only 6 do not breed in the Arctic, and of 25 species breeding in the Atlantic sector of the Arctic only 6 do not breed in UK. Many individuals of several species of seabird migrate to and through the UK after breeding in the Arctic and some species breeding in the UK also range widely to the north in the non-breeding season; some individuals and species, for example the fulmar, even exploit Arctic waters while breeding in the UK. The UK is the southernmost part of the range of other Arctic birds, such as the Faroese/S Icelandic race of the common eider, and the proper biogeographical population context for UK statutory purposes, including obligations under the EU Birds Directive, includes for several species the Arctic.

17. Other wide-ranging marine mammal species also have ranges that include UK and Arctic waters – perhaps at least a dozen species – and probably many more species of fish. The marine ecosystem of the North Atlantic, including UK and Arctic seas, is differentiated less on an ecological scale than on a political one.

18. Thus changes in the Arctic with impacts on biodiversity there also directly affect some of ‘our’ wildlife here too. Under the EU Directive on the conservation of wild birds (2009/147/EC) the UK has fulfilled its obligations to classify many Special Protection Areas for such migratory species, including, for example, most major estuaries and other wetlands. Yet the ability to maintain the favourable conservation status of the birds that use these areas (such as those listed in Figure 1) will depend not only on the ‘local’ management of these wintering sites, but also on influences on their Arctic breeding grounds.

UK conservation and surveillance of Arctic species

19. Significant conservation resources in the UK are devoted to management and conservation of wintering / passage Arctic birds These include the protection of internationally (or nationally) important sites as Special Protection Areas (including those at sea), as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, and as Sites (or Areas) of Special Scientific Interest.

20. Resources are also committed to managing agricultural conflict where these arise (especially with wintering geese populations) and to the monitoring and surveillance of populations wintering here. The UK is notable for its long-term monitoring datasets (including abundance, trends and, in some cases, productivity) on wintering wildfowl and waders dating back to 1947, and on seabirds back to 1989. These data are reliant on significant input from volunteer surveyors/counters and are co-ordinated by partnerships involving JNCC on behalf of government and a number of conservation NGOs. It is very important to sustain these monitoring schemes given the importance of the science now flowing from 60 years of surveillance.

21. Many Arctic birds wintering in the UK are typically concentrated in a relatively few discrete sites with high site fidelity for some populations (for example, the entire Svalbard population of barnacle geese winters on the inner Solway Firth) making monitoring of population size and productivity relatively simple and cost-effective (supported by the use of large numbers of volunteers). By contrast, Arctic birds in the breeding season are dispersed at low densities over enormous areas of difficult terrain making monitoring difficult and expensive.

22. UK data (and those of other relevant EC Member States) are thus highly relevant to monitoring of Arctic biodiversity – some trends already observed here include ‘short-stopping’ [8] and changed migration phenology, both linked to climate change.

23. These data are available, indirectly, to CAFF to contribute to circumpolar assessments but the processes for doing so have scope for development and this is currently being explored. Whilst JNCC already collaborates and shares some data with CAFF (especially with its seabird Working Group), we need to ensure that CAFF is aware of all our datasets and that these are readily available to them to contribute to pan-Arctic trend analyses and other assessments.

24. There is also scope, perhaps, to use these UK-collected data on Arctic species to contribute to ‘smarter’ indices of change in the Arctic (and/or to CBMP indices) with the emphasis on making better use of existing datasets rather than seeking to compile new ones.

25. The UK already undertakes significant Arctic research through the Natural Environment Research Council and others. Arctic biodiversity research has been considered by the former (Defra-chaired) Global Biodiversity Sub-Committee (GBSC) at a workshop in October 2009 [9] . The group suggested research priorities should be considered at three different scales: a) where there is a direct UK link to the Arctic (such as through shared migratory populations); b) where there is a UK impact / footprint on the Arctic (such as through fisheries, energy exploration, shipping); and c) wider world – such as the UK being a contributor to global climate change. JNCC expertise is most likely to be focused on category a) above. The workshop also identified key risks to Arctic biodiversity as a result of the rapid environmental and land-use changes taking place there.

Figure 1. The UK’s strategic position at the junction of several migratory flyways extending from the Arctic to temperate Europe and Africa as illustrated by an example showing the breeding grounds and migration routes of the waders that visit UK estuaries (closed circles below indicate species or populations that winter in the UK and open circles those that pass through the UK).



NE Canada






Britain & Ireland


Northern Europe


Northern Russia

Red Knot


Grey Plover


Bar-tailed Godwit

Ringed Plover




Black-tailed Godwit



Figure 2. The world range of the Greenland white-fronted goose: an example of an Arctic breeding bird, responsibility for whose conservation is shared between four Range States. The UK supports about half the world population in the non-breeding season.

Table 1. Numbers of species of Arctic birds which regularly occur in the UK in significant numbers.


Number of species of Arctic birds occurring in the UK

Example species

Divers & grebes


Great Northern Diver

Fulmars, petrels & cormorants




Bewick’s Swans



Greenland White-fronted Geese

Barnacle Geese



Long-tailed Duck

Common Scoter






Red Knot


Ringed Plover

Skuas, gulls & terns


Glaucous Gull

Arctic Skua







Snow Bunting


10 February 2012



[3] p hp?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=10&Itemid=107

[4] ; see page 33.



[7] although in the Pacific, the UK’s Overseas Territory of Pitcairn Islands supports over-wintering long distance migrant waders such as Bristle-thighed Curlew which breed in Alaska.

[8] Where species or populations which may formerly have wintered in the UK now winter elsewhere in sites closer to their breeding grounds (where winters are now sufficiently mild).


Prepared 24th February 2012