HAMPSHIRE County Council has failed to report on conservation efforts at its important nature sites for the eighth year in a row, figures reveal.

Despite a government pledge to strengthen protection of biodiversity, experts warn underfunding has left councils struggling to keep tabs on their natural sites – let alone protect them.

There are more than 40,000 so-called Local Sites in England, which the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs defines as places with a “substantive nature conservation importance”.

Local Sites are different to Sites of Specific Scientific Interest – although Defra says many are their “equal in quality” – and councils do not have a legal duty to protect them.

However, government guidance says they should take the lead in partnering with local organisations to manage them, and must provide figures to Defra’s annual monitoring report.

But of the 149 councils asked to provide data in 2018-19, 62 (42 per cent) failed to do so – Hampshire County Council among them. It has now failed to respond for ​the eighth year running.

The report notes many local authorities say they have insufficient resources to carry out assessments of their sites.

​In ​2010-11, the last year in which Hampshire County Council submitted data, ​1,602 of the 3,847 Local Sites (42 per cent) in the area were being conserved.

Only 47% of Local Sites across England are being conserved, according to the 2018-19 report.

Experts say years of cuts have seen funding diverted from discretionary services such as conservation, towards obligatory areas like social care.

David Lowe, head of ecology at Warwickshire County Council and a member of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, said this meant some areas are inevitably “put on the back burner”, and that “ecology has been one of these for many years.”

Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government figures show English councils’ environmental initiatives budgets – which includes grants for third-party groups, individual environmental projects, and environmental education – took a 9% hit between 2014-15 and 2019-20, falling from £59 million to £53 million. Hampshire County Council’s budget increased by 33% over the same period, however, from £849,000 to £1.1 million.

The Government’s recent Environment Bill pledges to “strengthen the duty on public authorities to enhance biodiversity”.

David Renard, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, said any new burdens placed on councils “must be properly resourced”, following significant budget cuts and increasing pressure in areas such as social care.