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From SSSIs to LNRs: Conservation Designations Explained

Cairngorms National Park

In the UK, there are a range of conservation ‘designations’ or protections that give special status to various sites or areas of countryside because of their natural and cultural importance. These protected places range from tiny urban nature reserves and small scraps of woodland to vast national parks. Because different protections restrict certain activities, including development, it is important to be aware of a site’s conservation designation. This is why a preliminary ecological appraisal is vital to identify whether a proposed development site includes any designated areas or if there are any nearby.

There are a host of different acronyms and names given to these protections. Some are issued locally, some nationally and some by international bodies. Locations may also have more than one designation, so may be an SSSI, an SPA and an LNR, for instance. Making sense of the various levels of protection, and the confusing array of acronyms, therefore, can be difficult. Read on for an explanation of the terms you might come across.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs or ‘triple S Is’) are the fundamental building blocks of site protection in the UK. This means that most other environmental designations, from SPAs to Ramsar sites, are based on them. They were originally set up under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to identify and protect habitats and species of national importance. In Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man they are called Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs).

Sites are designated by the relevant devolved government’s environmental advisory body, Natural England or NatureScot, for example. Each location will contain important examples of flora, fauna, geology, or a mixture of all of them. England has over 4,000 SSSIs, including the Avon Gorge in Bristol, Hunstanton Cliffs in Norfolk and Chesil Beach in Dorset. Scotland’s 1,400 plus sites, meanwhile, include Glen Affric and Arthur’s Seat. Wales has over 1,000 designated sites, including Cadair Idris and the Taf Estuary.

Hunstanton Cliffs SSSI
Hunstanton Cliffs in Norfolk

Certain activities will be restricted on SSSIs, and sometimes even on adjacent land; these activities will be individual to each site and listed along with its important natural features in a citation document. Landowners or tenants have to apply for consent to carry out any restricted activities to the local planning authority. They in turn must liaise with the relevant environmental body before granting permission for anything that might damage the site.

Special Protection Areas (SPAs)

Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are European designations set up under the EU Birds Directive 1979 to protect bird species of international importance. Because many species are migratory, the Directive recognised that helping the continent’s birds would involve cross-border cooperation and the creation of a network of protected sites. It is the oldest piece of EU legislation concerned with the environment.

Sites are chosen due to the presence of one or more of the 194 species on Annex 1 of the Directive. This lists particularly threatened bird species. SPAs are also designated to help protect all migratory species.

SPA Inverpolly
The Inverpolly SPA includes rugged Stac Pollaidh

In the UK, the existing system of SSSIs was important in identifying locations. SPAs include Inverpolly in the Scottish Highlands, Ashdown Forest in East Sussex and the Dyfi Estuary in Ceredigion, Wales.

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

The EU (or European Community as it was then known) adopted the Habitats Directive in 1992. This designated sites as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). These were identified as important for protecting rare habitats and species of European importance. SACs combined with the SPAs created under the Birds Directive to form a Europe-wide network of protected areas, the Natura 2000 network.

Habitats listed in the Directive include fens, blanket bogs and coastal dunes. Sites can range from a small disused brick pit containing great crested newts in Dorset, to much larger areas such as the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland, with its vast blanket bog.

SAC Flow Country
The Flow Country’s blanket bogs led to SAC designation

Crucially, at time of writing, despite the UK’s exit from the EU, the standard of protection for both SPAs and SACs has not changed, and they still have the highest level of protection when it comes to planning law. In addition, although most SPAs and SACs are also SSSIs, there are many more SSSIs that aren’t either of these. SSSIs that don’t have these extra designations are not as well protected. This is because local authorities have much more discretion when it comes to deciding if a development proposal will negatively affect a site that is solely a SSSI.

National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and Local Nature Reserves (LNRs)

National and local nature reserves (NNRs and LNRs) are established to protect locally, nationally or internationally important species and/or habitats. However, there is also an emphasis on encouraging people to enjoy them and learn from them, so most allow a large degree of public access.

Most NNRs will be SSSIs, and many will also be SPAs and/or SACs, but their reserve status affords them the highest level of protection from disturbance and development regardless of any other designations. Some are owned and managed by the relevant national environmental body, such as Natural England. Others are privately owned or in the hands of a conservation NGO like the RSPB. NNRs include Abernethy Forest in Scotland, Shapwick Heath in Somerset and Snowdon in Wales.

NNR Shapwick Heath
Shapwick Heath NNR forms part of Somerset’s Avalon Marshes complex

In contrast, LNRs are almost always owned by a local authority, although they will often delegate management to other organisations, such as the county’s Wildlife Trust. They may have some degree of protection under local bylaws, but they won’t be protected at national level.

National Parks

The Peak District was established as the UK’s first National Park in 1951 as a direct result of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. In the years since, 14 more parks have been designated. These include three in Wales (Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and the Pembrokeshire Coast) and two in Scotland (the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs). The South Downs became the most recent park in 2010. Funding comes from central government.

National Park Pembrokeshire Coast
The Pembrokeshire Coast is one of three Welsh national parks

Although each park is run by its own park authority, the large areas involved mean there will be numerous landowners and ultimately, parks are multi-functional areas. Each authority needs to balance conserving and enhancing the wildlife and heritage of their park with the needs of the communities within it. This means that development can and does happen within national parks, provided there is no conflict with conservation. Sustainable industries and development are also key. Any SSSIs, SPAs and SACs within a park will, of course, have additional protections.

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are pretty much what they say on the tin; areas that are protected because of distinctive and beautiful landscapes. The emphasis here is on the character of the land itself, rather than the habitats or species, although these obviously play a part in that.

Absent from Scotland, the relevant devolved environmental bodies for England, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for designations. They also act as advisors and watchdogs to make sure they are conserved appropriately. As with national parks, though, there is a balance between the needs of the landscape and local communities.

AONB Mourne Mountains
The Mourne Mountains are one of Northern Ireland’s Nine AONBs

The UK has 46 AONBs in total. These range from the Mendips in Somerset and the Surrey Hills to the Lyn Peninsula in Wales and the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Once again, many will also be (or include) sites with extra designations, whether triple S Is, SACs or SPAs.

Ramsar Sites

One final designation is the result of an intergovernmental treaty set up to protect internationally important wetlands. Signatory countries commit to designating and conserving Ramsar wetland sites within their nations. This treaty was adopted at Ramsar in Iran in 1971 and came into full being in 1975.

The UK’s 149 Ramsar sites are all also SPAs, SACs or SSSis. They include locations such as Montrose basin in Scotland and Chesil Beach in Dorset.

Ramsar site Chesil Beach
The distinctive stretch of Chesil Beach is a Ramsar site