Planning and development – guidance

Sites of special scientific interest: managing your land

Find out what you can do on or near an SSSI, when you need consent for an activity and how Natural England can help you manage your land.

Sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) are protected by law to conserve their wildlife or geology. Natural England can identify land you own or occupy as an SSSI - this is called being designated.

Use Natural England’s ‘Magic’ map to check if your land is on an SSSI.

Read separate SSSI guidance on public body responsibilities.

There are certain things you can’t do on SSSI land without Natural England’s consent, for example you might not be able to remove plants - it depends on the SSSI.

Use the designated sites system to search for your SSSI and find out about:

  • ‘operations requiring Natural England’s consent’ - you can download the list of activities for your SSSI
  • the condition of the site
  • Natural England’s advice on managing and protecting the site

You may also want to review other data about the SSSI, including details of its impact risk zone - land around the SSSI where activities may be restricted.

You’ll need to request permission from Natural England in writing if you intend to carry out a listed activity.

You could get an unlimited fine for an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act if you carry out or permit someone else to carry out a controlled activity on an SSSI without Natural England’s permission. You could also have to pay to repair any damage to the site.

You don’t need permission for:

  • emergency work, for example to protect livestock during a flood (you must tell Natural England as soon as possible afterwards)
  • work your local council has approved through the planning application process (if they’ve consulted Natural England)
  • work you have statutory permission for from a public body such as the Environment Agency or Forestry Commission (if they’ve consulted Natural England)

You can get help from Natural England’s Discretionary Advice Service at most stages of the planning process.

  1. Discuss your proposal with your Natural England SSSI adviser.

  2. Fill in the form to request permission.

  3. Email your completed form to: enquiries@naturalengland.org.uk or post it to Natural England.

Contact Natural England if you don’t know your SSSI adviser.

If you need a felling licence or grant agreement from the Forestry Commission, you can apply for Natural England consent at the same time using a different form.

Include the following details in your proposal:

  • name of the SSSI
  • your name and address
  • description of what you intend to do and how
  • approximate start and end dates for the works
  • location of the proposed works (send a map with notes if you can)

You’re likely to be asked for more information so might want to include more detail in your proposal, for example:

  • what vehicles will need access to the site, the routes they’ll take and ground pressure they’ll exert
  • how you’ll remove any spoil from the site
  • the origin and chemical nature of materials you’ll bring onto the site

Your proposal may also require an environmental impact assessment.

You can expect Natural England’s initial response within 10 days and a final decision within 28 days. You could wait up to 4 months in exceptional circumstances. If you don’t hear within 4 months you should take this as a refusal of consent.

Natural England won’t give permission for any activities that could damage the site’s special features. They might ask you to do the work in a certain way, or at a particular time, to avoid damaging the site.

It’s an offence to carry out a listed activity without Natural England’s consent or to ignore the conditions of a consent.

If Natural England refuse you permission for works or you disagree with the conditions they’ve specified with their consent, you can appeal to Defra.

Find out how to appeal the refusal or conditions of consent. You have 2 months to appeal.

You may be able to resolve the problem without a formal appeal by speaking to your SSSI adviser.

Protect your SSSI

Natural England categorise the condition of SSSIs as one of the following:

  • favourable - habitats and features are in a healthy state and are being conserved by appropriate management
  • unfavourable (recovering condition) - if current management measures are sustained the site will recover over time
  • unfavourable (no change) or unfavourable (declining condition) - special features are not being conserved or are being lost, so without appropriate management the site will never reach a favourable or recovering condition
  • part destroyed or destroyed - there has been fundamental damage, where special features have been permanently lost and favourable condition can’t be achieved

Get help from your SSSI adviser

Your SSSI adviser can recommend management measures, based on information you were given when the site was designated, that will help it reach favourable or recovering condition.

Management measures could involve:

  • grazing with sheep or cattle
  • woodland management
  • controlling water levels
  • clearing trees and shrubs from rock surfaces

Your adviser can also help with:

  • sources of funding
  • the law on protecting your site

Condition assessments

Natural England or expert contractors will visit your site to carry out condition assessments. They’ll do this at least once every 6 years but might visit more often, for example if a special feature can only be assessed at a specific time of year.

Natural England will request your permission before visiting unless they believe the site is being damaged. They can enter the site without your permission, but will only do this if they’ve issued you a notice and you’ve denied them access.

For assessment, Natural England divides SSSIs into smaller units and assess them against a list of the features for which the site was designated, alongside related targets. You can view the targets in your SSSI’s ‘favourable condition table’ on the designated sites system.

Example

If one of the special features of your site is a rare plant species, the assessment is likely to include a measure of population size and distribution within the unit. Similarly, if a particular habitat is a feature, Natural England will measure its extent, structure and species composition.

After the assessment, Natural England will contact you to discuss the condition of the site and any changes in management you need to make if it’s not in favourable or recovering condition.

Natural England usually publishes summaries of condition assessments within 6 weeks.

Management agreements, schemes and notices

If your SSSI isn’t being cared for or is being damaged, Natural England will get involved.

If someone else is causing damage to the land, Natural England may contact the police.

Management agreements

Natural England will advise you and try to agree with you on the work that’s needed to protect and improve the condition of the site.

You might be eligible for a Countryside Stewardship grant or Natural England might arrange other funding to help you carry out any required work.

Management schemes

If you can’t reach agreement Natural England may issue you with a management scheme - they’ll send you a letter before they do this.

A management scheme is a statement of measures necessary to conserve or restore features of your land. You don’t have to follow the scheme but you could get payments if you do.

If you think the management scheme is unreasonable or that someone else should be responsible for the work, contact your SSSI adviser and explain why.

Management notices

If you don’t carry out works detailed in a management scheme, Natural England can issue a management notice. This will state that you must carry out works detailed within the management scheme they already gave you. Natural England may offer you payments for the work.

You’ll be breaking the law if you get a management notice but don’t carry out the work within 2 months of the deadlines specified by Natural England.

Natural England could:

  • send you a notice to comply - you could face prosecution and an unlimited fine if you don’t
  • enter your land and carry out the work - you’ll have to pay for the work
  • get a compulsory purchase to force you to sell your land to them (a last resort)

Appeal a management notice

You can appeal to Defra against a management notice. You have 2 months to appeal.

You may be able to resolve the problem without a formal appeal by speaking to your SSSI adviser.

New SSSI designations

Natural England identify and protect SSSIs in England under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

Natural England must identify an area as a new SSSI when it believes the land’s wildlife or geology is of special interest. This is known as a ‘notification’ or ‘designation’. Becoming an SSSI doesn’t give the public the right to access your land.

Sites are identified using the:

Natural England will write to you and tell you if it believes your land has special conservation value. Natural England is likely to call you to discuss this before sending a notification letter.

The letter will explain the legal implications of the notification such as:

  • the reasons for designation
  • a statement of Natural England’s views on the management of the SSSI
  • a list of operations requiring Natural England’s consent
  • a map showing the SSSI
  • your legal responsibilities
  • how to give your opinions or object to the designation

The letter will give you details of an adviser who can help you. They’ll be able to explain:

Natural England must also tell:

  • the local planning authority
  • the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • public bodies, such as the Environment Agency, water and sewerage companies and internal drainage boards

Give your opinion or object

You have 4 months to write to Natural England to tell them what you think or to object to the designation of your land as a SSSI.

The Natural England board decide whether to confirm or withdraw a notification. They have a 4-month consultation period to look at the objections and issues raised.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs appoints members of the board. They are independent of Natural England staff and the executive board.

Changes and de-notification

Natural England can:

  • extend an existing SSSI if nearby land is also of special interest
  • add features of special interest to an SSSI record if they’re found on the land
  • update the list of activities for which you’ll need Natural England’s consent
  • withdraw the designation of a SSSI, known as ‘de-notification’

Natural England will only de-notify an SSSI in exceptional cases. A site that’s lost its features of special interest and there’s no chance of restoring them would be de-notified.

It’s an offence to deliberately or recklessly damage the special features of an SSSI. Sites that have been illegally damaged, or suffered from neglect, will not be de-notified.

Change of ownership

A designated SSSI is also registered as a ‘local land charge’, which means that all future owners and occupiers will be bound by the laws protecting them.

You must tell Natural England within 28 days about changes to the ownership or occupation of the land, including if:

  • you sell your land
  • you lease it to another person
  • someone else gets the right to use the land (known as ‘an easement’)

Contact

Speak to your SSSI adviser or contact the enquiries team if you need help.

Enquiries team

Natural England
County Hall, Spetchley Road
Worcester
WR5 2NP

Opening times: 8:30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays)

Find out about call charges at www.gov.uk/call-charges.

Legislation

Find out about the legislation relating to SSSIs: