There is no national oversight for the relative proportions of English Priority Habitats that are placed into SSSI designation even though biological SSSIs “are intended collectively to comprise the full range of natural and semi-natural habitats”
I know because I asked: I was interested to know who was the “opinion of Natural England” – the legal key to getting land designated as SSSI according to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – especially as the National Priority Habitat Lowland Meadow is only about 0.3% of national SSSI designation by land area. (see NOTES at the end)
It turns out from the reply I received that
“Only a small proportion of SSSIs are attributable to grassland, however, there is no reason (or national strategy) for this. Sites are selected on a site by site basis, based on their individual merits.”
“Sites are considered initially by local Area Teams within Natural England. If the site satisfies the qualifying criteria, these Area Teams are likely to carry out a number of site visits. All of the available evidence is then submitted to Natural England’s Senior Leadership Team for a final decision.”
If only it were that simple. Let’s look first at the qualifying criteria that the local Area Teams use.
You can find them here http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2303 or rather some of them, because they were due to be updated by 2013/4 but I think only Lowland Grasslands made that deadline. You can see that some have been updated this year; the majority are still under revision presumably because the government hasn’t thought them a high enough priority to fund. The revisions are very good indeed as are the experts who write them, but the people who manage the experts are clearly unable to operate at the same level of expertise and skill.
When all the new guidelines are eventually updated, the original designations of the existing SSSIs will need reviewing and revisiting to see how they fare against the new guidelines (according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Site_of_Special_Scientific_Interest it took ten years to do this after the changes of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act). And then all the existing habitat survey data needs to be reviewed to see if more SSSIs need creating as a result of the new guidelines. Also, the local Area Teams will need to take account of the survey data they don’t have, and whether they need new data…all within their reduced budget of course. If, hypothetically, someone brought a court case against the local Area Teams because they didn’t designate a site that met the criteria better than an existing SSSI then they may well be liable to having not undertaken their statutory duty correctly. I suspect it would help their case if, for example, the chairman of the board of Natural England had written to the government explaining that Natural England had insufficient funding to carry out their statutory duty, otherwise I guess the local Area Managers will be left to fend for themselves. Good luck everyone.
Defra publish a set of figures so that anyone can judge the relative proportions of Priority Habitats in SSSI, the latest (2018) are here https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/env09-england-biodiversity-indicators
(sorry about the quality of the table – I’m not very techie – but it can be found on page 2a of the Excel file on the page above)
Why is 158,993 ha of Upland Heathland SSSI, but only 845 ha of Upland Hay Meadow? Who decided that one then? Definitely something that will come under scrutiny after we leave the EU and money is targeted to the management of SSSIs. As a country, would we be wanting to target such a larger amount of the apparently scarce financial resources for SSSI management on species-poor Upland Heathland compared to species-rich Upland Grassland? It will be interesting to see the how the SSSI boundaries for Upland Heathland fit over the “Who owns Britain” information. http://map.whoownsengland.org/
I’m assuming in the point above that the relative proportions are correct in the table because we definitely know the absolute numbers are not. I asked about the figures for Lowland Meadow (and blogged here https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2018/04/26/estimates/ ) and the 36,000 ha Defra claim above have a reality which is much closer to 8,000 ha. Assuming all the other figures are created in the same way, then the whole table is a completely and utterly misleading or as we say in science “unpublishable”; colloquially we would say “bollocks”. Nor is the extent recorded when the sites are condition assessed (see Report 2a. 1. Background – about the new mapping system which doesn’t record the extent https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/england-biodiversity-indicators ).
SSSIs aren’t even visited often enough any more to check on their condition https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/09/07/half-england-sssi-sites-not-monitored/ .
And then when we get to actually designating new sites the responsibility for investigating a site remains firmly on the shoulders of the local Area Team managers. They don’t have sufficient money available to check all sites and so must prioritise, but they will be prioritising on the basis of their own area not looking at an assessment of what is necessary to safeguard, say, the genetic variation of a native species where it varies across the country. Also, how can you choose the best examples if you haven’t carried out enough surveys to give an accurate assessment or the surveys available to you are out of date? (I’ve got a blog lined up about the considerable limitations of the MAGIC datasets; I’m just waiting for a reply from them). If the habitat, say Upland Meadow of MG3, mainly occurs nationally within a single local Area does the team designate all of it within the area because it’s nationally rare or only some because it’s not as rare locally; looking at the table above…obviously the latter.
And now to the actual designation process which is time consuming and complex, as landowners don’t always want their land designated. If we take the example of Lowland Meadow, where the new guidelines allow for designation of all examples over 0.5 ha, and if we keep going at the national designation rate of about say 10 Lowland Meadow sites a year then it will take at least 300 years (conservative estimate) before they are all designated (they are mainly very small now (because the larger areas have been destroyed in the past) and so there are lots of them making up the approx. 8000 ha in total; about 3500 ha are already SSSI). Even if all the estimated total of 8000 ha were designated as SSSI, the area pales into insignificance compared to the 159,000 ha of designated Upland Heathland. How could that disparity have even arisen from the published scientific guidelines? (suspicious face emoji).
And yet read any government document and it will tell you SSSIs are crucial to our country’s natural history – they are the living gene banks of our native plants and animals. A quote from the new Conservation 21 document
“High quality designated areas will be central to resilient landscape and ecosystems. They are a key component in establishing the large core area and networks that are the building blocks for resilience – providing refugia and stepping stones supporting adaptation to climate change, and for delivering wider ecosystem benefits.”
I wonder how close we are to the government saying that Natural England isn’t working (because things don’t work well when they’ve been underfunded although obviously they won’t mention that) and would be better privatised? Or started again? And I wonder how much longer the senior, more knowledgeable experts, with all their vast accumulated understanding of our country’s natural history, will want to stay.
I was interested to see who was responsible for designating SSSIs – i.e. who you would legally point the finger at if it wasn’t being undertaken properly and so I asked
“I note in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it states:-
[F215 28Sites of special scientific interest.E+W
(1)Where [F216Natural England] are of the opinion that any area of land is of special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features, it shall be the duty of [F216Natural England] to notify that fact—
(a)to the local planning authority [F217(if any)] in whose area the land is situated;
(b)to every owner and occupier of any of that land; and
(c)to the Secretary of State.
And so I would just like to check with you who is the person or job title with whom the responsibility lies for being the opinion of Natural England as laid out in the above law. From what I have read on your website it would seem to be the Chairman of the Board of Natural England, but I would like official confirmation of that please if I am correct.”
After an email checking as to whether I meant a local site or nationally, the answer I got was :-
“Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are the England’s very best wildlife and/or geological sites. SSSIs include some of the most spectacular and beautiful habitats, and a large proportion of these sites are internationally important for their wildlife and are also designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) or Ramsar sites.
Natural England is responsible for identifying and protecting the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Only a small proportion of SSSIs are attributable to grassland, however, there is no reason (or national strategy) for this. Sites are selected on a site by site basis, based on their individual merits.
The designation of SSSIs includes a two stage process; notification and confirmation. Natural England has to be of the opinion that an area of land is of special interest because of its flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features. This opinion is based on the exercise of specialist judgement which is informed by scientific guidelines – The Guidelines for selection of biological SSSIs for wildlife (biological) sites.
In order for a site to be considered as a candidate for SSSI designation, it has to support nationally important/rare flora or fauna or have nationally important geological or physiographical features. Anyone can recommend a site for consideration, and Natural England would expect accompanying evidence to be submitted at this stage. Sites are considered initially by local Area Teams within Natural England. If the site satisfies the qualifying criteria, these Area Teams are likely to carry out a number of site visits. All of the available evidence is then submitted to Natural England’s Senior Leadership Team for a final decision.
If you have a site in mind, you will need to supply evidence of it’s qualifying criteria to the mailbox above. The relevant Area Team will contact you directly with their decision.
I take that answer to mean that the “opinion” resides with that of the board (and the chairperson) and so the legal designation is their responsibility, but that the local Area Teams are legally responsible for choosing the sites for consideration. However, you will note that they didn’t answer my question directly.
Also of interest I found
“Natural England has a duty to notify SSSIs when it is of the opinion that an area of land is of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features. This opinion is based on the exercise of specialist judgement which is informed by scientific guidelines.”
“The purpose of SSSIs is to safeguard, for present and future generations, the diversity and geographic range of habitats, species, and geological and physiographical features, including the full range of natural and semi-natural ecosystems and of important geological and physiographical phenomena throughout England. The sites included within the series of SSSIs are intended collectively to comprise the full range of natural and semi-natural habitats and the most important geological and physiographical sites. The SSSI series should therefore include all of our most valuable nature conservation and earth heritage sites, selected on the basis of well-established and publicly available scientific criteria.”
Defra, 2003. Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Encouraging positive partnerships. (via http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140605123715/http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/Notification%20strategy%20for%20web_tcm6-15235.pdf )