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Natura 2000: a sociological study

Final Report Summary - N2SOC (Natura 2000: a sociological study)

Research objectives

Natura 2000 has established a network of protected ecological sites designated under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. These sites include the designation of private, public and community-held territories as special protection areas and special areas of conservation. Dr Bryan's PhD research revealed difficulties in the implementation of this network in Ireland, questioning how lines and boundaries relating to nature conservation objectives and spaces are drawn, perceived and redrawn at different scales. This Marie Curie Fellowship has aimed to use longitudinal research in Ireland and comparative research in the UK to present a sociological account of how Natura 2000 networks have been experienced in two EU member states where 'nature conservation' and 'rurality' have very different socio-cultural connotations. It has involved:

(i) the development of state-of-the-art conceptualisations of nature-society relations;
(ii) the deployment of these concepts in exploring the socio-political impacts of Natura 2000; and
(iii) making recommendations for innovative models of nature conservation theory and practice.

Work carried out

In addition to very considerable conceptual exploration and development, and documentary research involving extensive reviews of policy, legislative, media and academic sources, Dr Bryan has carried out the following empirical research:

In Ireland, she has conducted nine interviews at national level (with national parks and wildlife service, farming organisations and nature conservation NGOs (such as An Taisce, Friends of the Irish Environment, Irish Peatlands Preservation Council, Rural Ireland Says Enough and Turf Cutters and Contractors Association). She has undertaken 22 interviews at two case study sites (Owenduff Nephin Beg SAC/SPA and Stacks to Mullaghareiks SPA), and has conducted a further 20 interviews with rural opponents of the ban on domestic turf-cutting, along with participant observation at extant meetings, rallies and demonstrations.

In the UK, she has conducted 8 national-level interviews with key stakeholders (e.g. DEFRA, Natural England, Environment Agency, WWF, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and has undertaken secondary research into three case study sites:

(i) South Pennine Moors SAC/SPA;
(ii) Humber Estuary SAC; and
(iii) Thanet Coast and Sandwich Bay SAC.

Principal findings and conclusions

The research has yielded findings at both the general and specific levels. In general, while Natura 2000 is envisaged as protecting the integrity (and hence authenticity) of natural habitats, it is clear that in some cases local people resist the designation process via a reliance on alternative , locally constructed notions of place authenticity (drawing on a series of shared place performances). In Ireland particularly, conservationists seem to focus on protecting 'nature' while local people focus on protecting 'their place'. However, rather than regarding nature conservation and place conservation as necessarily incompatible, the research suggests that the 'protection of place' is a key mechanism through which the protection of nature can be negotiated on-the-ground. If understood and galvanised appropriately, performing place conservation may well be a central mechanism through which nature-cultures are buffered from the extreme effects of rapid, unexpected change. The challenge for Natura 2000 practitioners, therefore, is to acknowledge key habitats explicitly as places, in which to incorporate concerns for SOCIO-ECOLOGICAL RESILIENCE rather than just ecological resilience.

In Ireland, three main sets of findings have emerged:

(i) Natura 2000 Directives have become embroiled in a national context of austerity. The forced entry into an EU-ECB-IMF 'bailout programme' in 2010, with a consequential loss of economic sovereignty and enforced economic strictures, has been accompanied by a general malaise relating to sudden socio-cultural and economic change, and especially to uneven regional development involving what is seen as a neglect of rural areas. Most Natura 2000 sites are located in such rural areas, where there is a mix of conservatism and fatalism about externally-derived change, and there is some discontented resistance to the perceived 'colonialism' and cultural determination of EU policy over small-scale rural farming systems.

(ii) The natures of 'community interest' identified at EU level differ markedly from local expressions of 'community interest' in which nature is experienced as part of the everyday life of places rather than as scientifically 'special'. Local peoples' relationships with nature are bound up in their hybrid experiences of material, social and cultural life. However, place conservation versus nature conservation can represent a false dichotomy, and there are many similar concerns between conserving places and conserving natures.

(iii) There is some evidence (particularly in the current turf-cutting controversy) of gradual institutional learning by competent bodies of how to deal with conservation conflicts via greater communication and dialogue.

In The UK, two sets of comparative findings may be highlighted:

(i) Natura 2000 Directives are more easily transposed onto the existing landscape of nature conservation that has developed over a longer period of time and has become encultured in the national psyche. SACs and SPAs map more readily than elsewhere onto existing designations such as SSSIs.

(ii) However, specific economic development needs do conflict with the objectives of Natura 2000 directives. In particular, the issue of port expansion into sensitive areas of adjoining land exemplifies governmental tendencies towards liberalisation of conservation policies when they clash with plans for infrastructural development. Such liberalisation has the potential to dilute the 'gold-plated' nature of EU Directives on nature conservation.

In both Ireland and the UK, understandings of nature conservation need to be filtered through a more complex conceptual perspective on what constitutes nature - in particular, attention to the materialities and affective capacities of nature help to provide a more realistic, place-related perspective on what have previously too often been considered as merely socially constructed natures.

Potential impact

These findings and conclusions of this research are being widely disseminated in both academic and policy arenas. In an extensive programme of producing key deliverables, Dr Bryan has made five major conference presentations and has 7seven significant publications either completed or in process. These publications will include the first major academic book to evaluate the impact of Natura 2000 Directives across Europe. She has already established knowledge transfer networks that include university researchers from Ireland, the UK, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the USA and Australia, and the proposed book will assemble expert authors from across the EU. The academic impacts of the research will therefore be widespread and highly significant. In addition, Dr Bryan has worked hard to open out channels of communication with relevant policy communities in Ireland and the UK in order to publicise and emphasise the findings of the research. Key stakeholders such as the national parks and wildlife service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in Ireland, and English Nature and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK, are included in this process.