England's protected sites overgrazed, polluted

PETERBOROUGH, England, December 15, 2003 (ENS): England's legally protected wildlife and geological sites are at risk of overgrazing, burning, inappropriate coastal management, and agricultural runoff, according to the first definitive survey by English Nature, the government's independent wildlife advisor.

The six year study shows that 58 percent of England's Sites of Special Scientific Interest by land area are in favorable or recovering condition with 42 percent in unfavorable condition, England Nature said.

There are 4,112 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), covering an area of more than one million hectares (3,861 square miles), or about seven percent of England. The sites range from tiny areas that protect a single species, to large expanses of upland moors or coastal marshes.

The roof space of Sylvan House Barn in Gloucestershire, a roost for the lesser horseshoe bat, is the smallest SSSI at seven meters square, and the largest is The Wash, 62,000 hectares of coastal and marine habitats of international importance for migratory and wintering birds.

This report sets out the results of the first complete national assessment of SSSI condition. Over the last six years English Nature staff have assessed the condition of every SSSI unit at least once. This is the first time a full national assessment of this kind has been undertaken anywhere in the world.

The Blair government has pledged to bring 95 percent of all SSSIs into favorable condition by 2010, a commitment English Nature Chair Sir Martin Doughty calls "challenging." He said the report is presented in the hope that it will be a "a catalyst in binding the commitment of policy makers, legislators, public decisionmakers and landowners to help meet this target."

English Nature Chief Executive Dr. Andy Brown said, "Meeting this challenge will be a huge effort for everyone. English Nature is working with thousands of individuals and organizations in partnership, to tackle the sites that are not improving. We must recognize that improving and maintaining England’s natural assets needs ongoing investment, alongside changes to legislation and the reform of environmentally damaging policies."

Friends of the Earth UK says that in addition to investment, legislation and policy reform, bringing 95 percent of all SSSIs into good condition by 2010 also needs English Nature to continue as an independent agency.

In the light of the new report, Friends of the Earth called on the government to re-examine proposals for the abolition of English Nature. A review of rural agencies by Lord Haskins published November 11 suggested merging English Nature with parts of other rural agencies.

Friends of the Earth believes that "given the challenges highlighted in this report," English Nature should remain an independent agency, focused on wildlife protection and more resources to do its job.

Friends of the Earth Director Tony Juniper, said, "Shutting down English Nature and cutting the money available for nature conservation would be utter madness at this point. This report shows how more than ever we need strong independent official agencies with adequate resources before we can conserve the animals and plants that people love.”

To be precise, the report states that as of September 30, the proportion of SSSIs in favorable condition by land area was 44.6 percent, unfavourable recovering was 13.7 percent, unfavorable no change was 25.2 percent, unfavorable declining was16.4 percent, and destroyed or part destroyed was 0.2 percent.

Overgrazing is, by far, the reason for the unfavorable or declining condition of these legally protected land areas. More than 45 percent of SSSI land in unfavorable condition is overgrazed, the report states.

Many upland SSSIs are in poor condition as a result of decades of overgrazing, drainage and damaging burning practices on grouse moors and hill pastures, English Nature reports. These "unsustainable management" practices have resulted in loss of habitat and species, as well as wider environmental effects - soil erosion, degraded water quality, and increased run-off into watercourses, which raises water flows and siltation.

English Nature says it is "essential" to cut the numbers of sheep on overgrazed areas, but also vital to maintain "viable farm businesses in the uplands," for management of important wildlife areas and for social and economic sustainability.

This can be achieved, English Nature suggests, with changes in agricultural payments available to farmers who provide environmental benefits. "It is important that farm payments following the Common Agricultural Policy reforms are made conditional on appropriate grazing management."

The SSSIs make a major social and economic contribution through tourism, recreation and food production, says Dr. Brown. "People make over 370 million visits per year" to the SSSIs where they participate in "more than 40 different sports and other recreational activities," he said.

These sites "are vital for the health of the environment through natural processes that maintain air, soils and climate and help reduce the effects of flooding and pollution," said Brown.

Other reasons given by English Nature for the unfavorable condition of SSSIs are inappropriate moor burning, lack of scrub control, inappropriate forestry and woodland management, lack of appropriate ditch management, sea fisheries and coastal squeeze.

Although burning the moors to stimulate new growth of grasses for livestock or heather for grouse has taken place in Britain for centuries, but now fully 24 percent of the area of SSSIs in an unfavorable condition is due to inappropriate moor burning, the English Nature report shows. Fires that are too frequent or too hot, set at the wrong time of year, or covering large areas can all be damaging.

Burning vegetation on peat can expose the peat surface, drying it out and causing the loss of bog-moss cover. Fires can ignite the peat, causing long lasting damage and leading to peat erosion and increased run-off into streams and rivers.

Many of the birds, including grouse, that use moors for nesting and feeding are displaced from their habitat and their nests and eggs destroyed by burning.

English Nature is currently in discussion with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (DEFRA) over a possible review of the current heather and grass burning code, and plans to publish a moorland restoration guide in 2004.

Flood defense and land drainage works have caused rivers that cross SSSIs to be deepened and straightened, and floodplains drained for agriculture and other uses. The Environment Agency’s River Habitat Survey shows that about 85 percent of lowland rivers have been physically modified and SSSIs are no exception, the report says.

Invasive alien species such as signal crayfish and water fern, are affecting the condition of some freshwater SSSIs. The Australian swamp stonecrop, a spreading water plant, can smother ponds and small lakes, and the signal crayfish can undermine river banks and oust native crayfish.

To bring freshwater SSSIs into favorable condition, direct and diffuse sources of pollution and water removal need to be better controlled, the report says.

Lowland SSSIs are feeling the effects of intensification of agricultural land management practices and the decline in mixed farming systems since the 1950s. Lack of grazing of rich wildflower pastures, over-drainage of wetlands, diffuse pollution of rivers and lakes, and lack of scrub control on chalk downland and heathlands is the result. "Many of our ditches, hedges, woodlands and rivers are being choked with invasive weeds," English Nature says.

Six percent of SSSIs in unfavorable condition suffer from inappropriate forestry and woodland management, the report shows. There is lack of management in existing woods where it would be desirable, the need to remove introduced trees and shrubs where they reduce the native plants and animals, and the need to remove trees and shrubs from open habitats, English Nature says.

With "the worldwide collapse in timber prices" the report states, there is little incentive to manage mature woodlands. Traditional products such as charcoal are now mostly imported.

Many ancient woods have had conifers or other non-native trees planted in them. On some sites, ornamental plants such as rhododendron and laurel have spread through woodland, shading out native species, English Nature found. "Removing such introductions in order to allow native wildlife to flourish once again can be both expensive and difficult, and there are currently few incentives or grants available for an owner who wishes to carry out such work."

Promoting markets for wood products such as home-grown charcoal, using home-grown timber in house construction, and "green procurement policies, in conjunction with the UK Woodland Assurance Standard" could spur a more local, sustainable use of woodland products from SSSIs. the report suggests.

The English Nature report shows that 58 percent of SSSIs are in a favorable or recovering condition. But this leaves over 400,000 hectares (one million acres) of land to bring into favorable or recovering condition over the next six years to meet the government's goal.

English Nature has set a target of increasing the area of SSSI land in favorable or recovering condition by five percent per year. The aim is to reach 62 percent by March 2004, 67 percent by March 2005 and 72 percent by March 2006.

To accomplish this, a wide range of departments and agencies across government in partnership with private and voluntary organizations will be required, English Nature recommends. Efforts can take the form of funding or support to promote positive site management, or regulation to discourage inappropriate management.

Management is going to be necessary, English Nature advises, because, "The commonly held view that sites are best protected by leaving them alone is only very rarely true."

"In the absence of grazing, grassland will often become scrubland and then woodland. While it is true that much of the countryside used to be wooded, that does not mean that we should now allow the last few remaining orchid-rich grassland sites to scrub over and disappear forever," the report resasons.

About 40 percent of English Nature’s total budget is spent directly on special sites, with about £12 million spent on SSSIs that are not in National Nature Reserves, and £5 million spent directly on the reserves, which the report found to be in better condition than the rest of the SSSIs.

This funding will have to be increased if the sites are to be brought into a more favorable condition, English Nature says. But it will take more than money to improve several complex situations.

The uplands have been heavily overgrazed for years, but now the grazing pressure may be reduced due to better data and increased direct funding. But if the effects of long term air pollution of sulfur from industry are not curtailed, then upland heaths will never fully recover, the report says.

So English Nature calls for "a combination of legislation, funding and policy" to "embed suitable and sustainable site management into the way we manage our countryside."

Within the next two years, English Nature will begin to use an improved data system, which will allow more detailed reports on specific features. "We will be able to report separately on the condition of, say, the breeding birds, the wintering birds and the ditches on a single site," an ability of value when reporting on the international features of interest on SSSIs, the agency says.

Assessments for all SSSIs in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, Wales and Ireland, will be reported by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in 2005.

The report, "England’s best wildlife and geological sites - The condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in England in 2003," is online at: http://www.english-nature.org.uk/news/news_photo/SSSI_Condition_Report.pdf

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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