Biosphere Reserves

Biosphere reserves are areas of terrestrial, coastal or marine ecosystems that are internationally recognised under the Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

They form an international network of sites, nominated by national governments, but designated by UNESCO. The first reserves were nominated as long ago as 1976. By 2001, a network of 393 reserves in 94 countries had been developed.

Biosphere reserves are an attempt to reconcile the problems of conserving biodiversity and biological resources, with sustainable use of natural resources for people. They have three main functions:

  • Conservation of biodiversity (ecosystems, species and genes).
  • Sustainable local economic and human development compatible with conservation needs.
  • Logistical support for environmental research and monitoring.
Each biosphere reserve ideally consists of one or more core areas, a buffer zone and a transition zone.


The core areas are securely protected sites for conserving biological diversity, monitoring ecosystems, carrying out non-destructive research and low impact uses.


This surrounds the core area and is used for co-operative activities which do not damage the ecology of the area.


An area containing agricultural activities and local communities, where interested parties work together to reconcile economic and conservation needs, while developing local resources in a sustainable way. 

Biosphere reserves are unusual in having flexible boundaries, which are not legally defined. They are mostly managed by more than one owner or agency.

Biosphere Reserves in the UK

In 1998, a review of the 13 biosphere reserves designated in the UK at that time, was commissioned by the Department of Environment, Food and Agricultural Affairs (DEFRA). These reserves were all national nature reserves, which were designated as biosphere reserves in 1976-77. 

It was recognised that some of the biosphere reserves which were originally nominated no longer matched the current criteria for biosphere reserves. These criteria have naturally evolved since the inception of the biosphere reserves concept. Review recommendations included a reduction in the number of biosphere reserves in the UK to 8 in total (some being composite reserves made up of a number of sites). A number of alterations to boundaries and to the extent of individual reserves has also been recommended.

UK Biosphere Reserve in Focus - Braunton Burrows

Braunton Burrows, which is a biosphere reserve located in North Devon, has been expanded as a result of the recommendations of the review. It now encompasses a larger section of the estuary of the rivers Taw and Torridge. This biosphere reserve extension/revision was examined in 2002 by the Advisory Committee for Biosphere Reserves and approved by the MAB Bureau on 6-8 November 2002.

More on Braunton Burrows   

Book Review - Biosphere Reserves (UNESCO)      


Biosphere Reserves (UNESCO - general)         UK Biosphere Reserves Website            UK Biosphere Reserves Review


Biosphere Reserve Contents