Designated? But what do all the letters mean?

Tom Wood
Tom Wood

Reading a recent edition of the Moorlander whilst sat in my local pub, I read an article about the recently published State of Nature report, which if you read what has been written (or the report itself) is all pretty depressing. Nature in the UK is not doing at all well; even in beautiful parts of the country such as Dartmoor the decline is evident and demonstrable.

Whilst reading the article I spotted a statistic stating that even in our designated sites the decline is undiminished and I thought…  I wonder if most people know what the designations mean? With the current plight nature in our country is in I thought a short article to help people understand what designations exist and what they actually mean might be in order, so here goes, prepare to be bombarded with acronyms!

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)
SSSIs were first notified under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and are now designated under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 where they support habitats and/or species of national importance. SSSIs represent the UK’s best sites for wildlife and geology and are often of international importance, not to mention irreplaceable. They don’t represent all these sites though, just the best ones, many of the others become LWSs (see later on).

It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage, disturb or destroy land known to be an SSSI or intentionally or recklessly disturb the wildlife in an SSSI. This includes things as seemingly insignificant such as picking flowers or fungi. If you are owner or occupier of an SSSI, it an offence to carry out any activity that may likely damage the SSSI without consent from the relevant conservation agency. This is currently Natural England. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act the owner or occupier may enter into a management agreement for the purposes of securing the SSSI special interest. For example, an agri-environment scheme such as HLS.

Public bodies (such as utility companies or their representatives) are not allowed to carry out damaging operations on an SSSI, except where they notify the relevant conservation agency. If the activity cannot be avoided it must be undertaken in a way least damaging to the SSSI. If the above are breached a fine of up to £20,000 may be levied. There are many SSSIs on Dartmoor; I look after both Whiddon Deer Park and Teign Valley Woods SSSIs.

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)
Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are protected areas in the UK designated under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 in England and Wales. SACs are designated where they support internationally important habitats and/or species listed in the EC Habitats Directive; in other words, SACs are at least in part a European initiative. Sometimes SACs incorporate several geographically separate areas under one SAC listing if they share the same characteristics, often several SSSIs will be lumped into one SAC such as the Dartmoor SAC.  As such, they are often quite large.

Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
This one is all about birds – SPAs are areas which have been identified as being of international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or the migration of rare and vulnerable species of birds found within European Union countries. They are designated under the European ‘Birds Directive 1979’.  They tend to be found in coastal, estuarine or wetland areas. The Exe estuary is one of these areas.

Ramsar Sites
Another watery one – The Ramsar Convention is an international agreement signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, which provides for the conservation and good use of wetlands. The UK Government ratified the Convention and designated the first Ramsar sites in 1976. The Exe estuary is a Ramsar site as well as an SPA.

National Nature Reserves (NNRs)
NNRs are designated under section 35 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. They are owned by or managed through agreements with Natural England. They are automatically SSSIs as well. Yarner Woods near Bovey Tracy is an NNR.

Local Nature Reserves (LNRs)
All district and county councils have powers to acquire, declare and manage LNRs. Town and parish councils may be able to create LNRs if the district council has given them the power. To be an LNR, a site must be of importance for wildlife, geology, education or public enjoyment. LNRs must be controlled by the local authority through ownership, lease or agreement with the owner. There are numerous LNRs around Plymouth including Cann and Whitleigh Woods.

Local Wildlife Sites (LWS) – non statutory
Local Wildlife Sites have ‘substantive nature conservation value’. They are areas identified for their nature conservation value, based on important, distinctive and threatened habitats and species. Found on either public or private land, LWSs can vary in size from something as small as a pond or linear features such as hedgerows, road verges and water courses to much larger areas of habitat such as ancient woodlands, heaths, wetlands and grassland.

They support both locally and nationally threatened wildlife, and many sites will contain habitats or species which are priorities under the County or UK Biodiversity Action Plans (BAP). Collectively they play a critical role in the conservation of the UK’s natural heritage by providing essential wildlife refuges in their own right and by acting as stepping stones, corridors and buffer zones to link and protect other site networks and the open spaces of our towns and countryside. If you know anything about the Lawton Report, and its recommendation that UK habitats need to be “bigger, better, more and joined up” you will know how vital even these sites can be.

Local Wildlife Sites go by many names, including Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs), Sites of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCIs) and County Wildlife Sites (CWS). They are usually selected by the relevant Wildlife Trust (in our case the Devon Wildlife Trust), along with representatives of the local authority and other local wildlife conservation groups. Not every important site can achieve SSSI (statutory) status but many become LWSs and can be equally important. We have a small CWS at Parke near Bovey Tracy. Because they are non-statutory these sites may easily be threatened by a variety of factors.

Hopefully the above helps to clear the waters a little, these are just the most commonly encountered designations that you may find locally. For more information and loads of useful information please try Magic Maps, a free online GIS system.

FeaturesLocal Life