Designated Sites – A site Managers Perspective
Cornwall Wildlife Trust recently went through the process of having some of our land designated as a SSSI. Here is our perspective as a nature conservation charity.
Cornwall Wildlife Trust (CWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts in the UK, each operating as independent charities and collectively as The Wildlife Trust movement. We are responsible for the management of 58 Nature Reserves in the county, ranging from sand dunes, woodlands, heathland, fen, reed bed and our very own island.
In common with most Wildlife Trusts many of these sites have statutory designations such as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Scheduled Monuments (SM). Many of the other reserves are non-statutory designated sites, in our case County Wildlife Sites. Most other counties have equivalent non-statutory designations, which must be considered in planning but are otherwise unprotected.
In 2017 the Mid Cornwall Moors SSSI was notified. This amalgamated numerous existing individual SSSI’s including three sites owned by CWT, removed some land from SSSI status and added more land parcels – increasing overall land covered by SSSI by two square miles. The Lawton approach – bigger, better, more joined up – was embodied in this landscape scale designation. The Mid Cornwall Moors landscape would now be thought of as a whole, rather than pockets of good habitat in isolation. The marsh fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia), a significant species in the area, was one of the drivers for this approach as it requires a network of suitable sites to function as a meta-population, allowing for extinction from, and re-population of sites. The designation was a very long process. We were involved in discussions and were consultees, but the designation happened as for any other landowner; had we any concerns they would have been considered, but we supported the designation and we didn’t have any.
For CWT there was some change. Several sites formerly designated County Wildlife Sites were now SSSI; also, the citation for whole SSSI changed. There were a lot of common elements with the previous individual SSSI citations, but overall the key features were re-considered, re surveyed in some instances and updated – for the first time since 1986.
On considering how it is different managing a site which is now SSSI, there are pros and cons.
- Being a SSSI guarantees that whilst SSSI’s exist in their current form the sites will always be prioritised for any funding available. The current mechanism for this is through the Countryside Stewardship scheme, under the Higher Tier. This provides land area based payments according to the relevant options, supplements for activities like cattle grazing and capital payments for the installation and replacement of fences, for example. It’s fair to say we have received higher payments for the management of our SSSI’s than under the previous Reserves Enhancement Scheme.
- In the Mid Cornwall Moors area, the citation is now up to date and fit for purpose. In some cases on the previous individual SSSIs we were trying to achieve targets which were no longer relevant. The new citations should help us to have clearer, more achievable aims. It can be the case that despite all your hard work and ‘doing the right thing’ a SSSI can still be poorly performing against criteria derived from the citation. Natural England’s (NE) Biodiversity 2020 target is to have 95% of SSSI’s in Favourable or Recovering status by 2020 - this been a strong driver to get sites into agri-environment schemes and means that NE will target SSSIs for support.
- Owning or managing a SSSI does, in theory, mean that management advice and support from NE should be readily available. Where getting it right can be difficult this can be a valuable resource.
- SSSI’s are protected from development or activities causing harm and come with a list of activities requiring NE consent. In practice our sites are nature reserves anyway so there are unlikely to be conflicts between our activities and NE’s requirements. An example however is when Red Moor, a site designated in the 1980’s (and now part of the new SSSI) was going through the progress of designation, neighbouring landowners wanted to drain land to prevent the designation. After designation this became an offence with the potential for unlimited fines. However, media has now reported ‘lawlessness’ in the countryside because government agencies are so stretched that they can’t afford to prosecute – see below.
- A SSSI site could be failing on a condition assessment which is potentially not good PR for a wildlife trust. Having said that, a failing SSSI would be first in line for additional resources if they were required to turn it around!
- Being a SSSI can be a barrier to even well intentioned projects leading to additional paperwork and staff time. For example, on one of the newly designated sites we want to put down chippings in the entrance to a stock pen to prevent vehicles getting stuck. Now as an SSSI it will need consent which, in all likelihood, we will get but rather than just getting in a load of 803, we haven’t got around to it yet as we need the time to fill in the forms.
- The current Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme is unwieldy and hard to work with. The RPA are now responsible for administering the schemes and they take a very black and white inflexible approach. In the past there was a human interface with NE staff, where judgement and an understanding of the general direction of travel were applied to support our work. Now this has gone, once the agreement is signed off after development with an NE officer there is no space for interpretation or discretion. This presents an organisation like ours, or a landowner trying to do the right thing with a much higher risk of clawback and fines. The inflexibility can also lead to withdrawal of funds. On a recent scheme involving 6500m of fencing, an oversight meant that 450m of this should have been stock netting not three strands of barb, as the rest of it was. On such a big agreement this was missed at the time – there is no option to change it, claim it and make up the shortfall or any other way of getting what the site needs. The money is lost and the work is not done.
- One criticism of SSSI’s is that there are no penalties for inaction, so a SSSI can slip into unfavourable condition through inaction with no comeback on the landowner.
As a general discussion of these points: Where sites are SSSI’s, in the past we have built close working relationships with NE staff. You would know who the relevant staff member was for a particular site, and they would know the sites and what you were trying to achieve. It is currently hard to identify who is responsible for which site and difficult to get advice and support. Colleagues at NE are having a hard time because of endless cuts to their budget meaning they have to make difficult choices. These cuts are a political decision seemingly at odds with the words coming from the politicians. In general support for management varies, CWT are probably allowed to get on with it as our aims align with NE’s and those of the SSSI citation. It is hard to imagine how this works out with a private landowner of a SSSI without a specialist interest in conservation of habitats and species. I imagine it could devalue the property, though it would mean that funding for its management was available. The landowner would also have the additional paperwork burden without the luxury of staff time to fill it in. However, as a conservationist, I would support the continual imposition of SSSI’s as if it were only carried out with full consent of all parties, much of our most prized habitat would remain unprotected.
In conclusion, the CS / NE / SSSI / RPA relationship is convoluted and can be difficult to work with – but it is our main source of funding so we have to get on with it. SSSI’s could become the highest designation in the land once Brexit settles in as the SAC designation may no longer be applicable. The outlook for nature conservation in England will be, to a large extent, guided by the contents of the Agriculture and Environment Bills, and the success of Nature Recovery Networks. SSSI’s would surely form the backbone of these networks, and it would be unthinkable for a government to undermine their protection in law, but the unthinkable does seem to make a habit of happening, so it’s good to have many SSSI’s in the safe hands of The Wildlife Trusts.
Seán O’Hea, Deputy Head of Nature Reserves
Cornwall Wildlife Trust