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Reviewing the evidence to protect natural sites

Reviewing the evidence to protect natural sites


Published on 23 April 2024

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How effective are social science-informed interventions in addressing the environmental impacts of recreational activities in protected areas and similar sites? 


Research Team


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Bethan Stagg – University of Exeter 

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Oliver James – University of Exeter 

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Alice Moseley – University of Exeter 

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Gavin Stark – Natural England 

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Eirini Saratsi – Natural England  



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Spending time in nature is good for people’s health and wellbeing, and encouraging people to connect with nature is part of the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the environment. However, human visitors have an impact, particularly on fragile or sensitive sites. So how can we successfully manage access to these places alongside protecting what makes them special?   

The aims of this work are:    

  • To understand what social science measures have been used to reduce the impact of visitors, recreational users and tourists in protected areas and other similar natural sites.   
  • To understand how effective different types of intervention have been and why.  
  • To consider the implications for the management of protected sites, including for social inclusion. 



The RENEW team is conducting a systematic review drawing on international evidence as well as research from here in the UK to help answer these questions. A rigorous, systematic search of the literature will identify relevant studies. These will be assessed for quality, and the lessons and findings drawn out and compared. Looking at research into a range of different interventions and different settings will enable us to see not only whether different measures worked, but also why – and what that might mean for future strategies in managing sensitive sites.   

Many of the UK’s important sites of nature conservation have designated ‘protected site’ status, which means their biodiversity and/or geological value is recognised and protected by law.  

Protected sites are vulnerable to multiple environmental pressures, and recreational activities can contribute to environmental pressures (such as where humans or their pets disturb ground nesting birds). One way to deal with this is to exclude people from sites. But given what we know about the benefits people can get from nature, is there another way? This review will look at interventions that aim to change people’s behaviour in order to minimise their impact.  

Natural England’s Protected Site Strategies Development project (PSS) is driving forward ambitious action to address multiple issues threatening biodiversity and geodiversity in and beyond Protected Sites. Taking a ‘people in nature’ approach, RENEW is working with Natural England and other partners on how people from all backgrounds can engage with nature recovery, and how we can balance nature protection with nature connection. This systematic review forms an important part of that work.   

“Evidence is growing about the benefits of recreation in natural environments, but there is also mounting concern about the environmental impacts of recreational activities. We need management strategies that allow us to encourage people to spend time in nature but minimise wildlife disturbance and habitat degradation. The review will help Natural England’s site managers and other staff to achieve those aims.”

Bethan Stagg, Research Fellow, University of Exeter  

Next steps

We are currently screening articles for inclusion in the review. Our search strategies returned 10,000 possible articles!   

We hope that findings from the systematic review will help shape Natural England’s Protected Site Strategies, in turn supporting the development of statutory and advisory guidance for Natural England’s new Protected Site Strategies powers in the Environment Act – Section 110. The work has the potential to lead recovery of Protected Site conditions in ways that benefit social inclusion as well as ecological improvement.  

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