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Ramsar Convention

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitats (The Ramsar Convention) is an intergovernmental treaty that aims to stem the progressive encroachment on and loss of wetlands now and in the future. The treaty was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and came into force in 1975.

The UK has designated 171 Ramsar sites covering 927,748 hectares, including 24 within the UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. The latest Ramsar sites to be designated by the UK were Gough Island and Inaccessible Island in the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha in November 2008.

On 10 December 2009 The Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, classified revisions to the existing Dee Estuary Special Protection Area and Ramsar site, designated under the EC Birds Directive and Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International importance.  These revisions extend the site to encompass adjoining Sites of Special Scientific Interest and correct mapping errors. More details (PDF 12KB)

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What is the Ramsar Convention?

The official name of the treaty The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat reflects its original emphasis on the conservation and wise use of wetlands primarily to provide habitat for waterbirds. Over the years, however, the Convention has broadened its scope to cover all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use, recognising wetlands as ecosystems that are extremely important for biodiversity conservation and for the well-being of human communities.

UNESCO serves as Depository for the Convention, but it is administered by a secretariat, which is housed in the headquarters of IUCN - the World Conservation Union in Gland, Switzerland, under the authority of the Standing Committee of the Convention and the Conference of the Parties.

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are defined as "areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres which may also incorporate riparian and coastal zones" i.e. areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life. They occur where the water table is at or near the surface of the land, or where the land is covered by shallow water. The coverage of the Convention extends to a wide variety of habitat types, including rivers and lakes, coastal lagoons, mangroves, peatlands and even coral reefs.

In addition there are human-made wetlands such as fish and shrimp ponds, farm ponds, irrigated agricultural land, salt pans, reservoirs, gravel pits, sewage farms, and canals.

Why conserve wetlands?

Wetlands are among the world's most productive environments. They are cradles of biological diversity, providing the water and primary productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival. They support high concentrations of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrate species. Of the 20,000 species of fish in the world, more than 40% live in fresh water. Wetlands are also important storehouses of plant genetic material. Wetlands provide tremendous economic benefits, for example water supply; fisheries; agriculture, through the maintenance of water tables and nutrient retention in flood plains; timber production; energy resources, such as peat and plant matter; wildlife resources; transport; and recreation and tourism opportunities.

Unfortunately, and in spite of important progress made in recent decades, wetlands continue to be among the world's most threatened ecosystems, owing mainly to ongoing drainage, pollution, and over-exploitation of their resources.

The partner organisations

Five non-governmental organisations work closely with the Ramsar Convention and are recognised as the "partner organisations": they are BirdLife International, IWMI - International Water Management Institute, IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Wetlands International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The Convention aims to stem encroachment on habitats. To achieve its objective, the Convention promotes the wise use of all wetlands. Special protection is given for wetlands included in the list of wetlands of international importance.

The Ramsar Policy Statement

In November 2000, the policy statement was launched which sets out the Government's policies for the protection and management of Ramsar sites in England. The main thrust of the statement is to afford Ramsar sites a level of protection which is consistent with their international important and which is broadly equivalent to the framework provided for the European Union's Natura 2000 network.

The statement fulfils Government's commitment, made in the consultation paper 'Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Better protection and management', to look again at the protection of Ramsar sites. It reinforces the message that development of Ramsar sites will be allowed only in the rarest circumstances, and if consent is given, lost wetland interests will have to be replaced by restoring and recreating habitats.

UK Natura 2000 and Ramsar Forum

The UK Natura 2000 and Ramsar Forum exists to provide strategic advice to Government on matters related to the identification, selection, protection and management of sites designated under the EC Birds and Habitats Directives, and under the Ramsar Convention.

Page last modified: 10 December 2009
Page published: 23 October 2008