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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights