Find out how areas like sites of special scientific interest are protected.

England’s natural environment is unique. Our geology, soils, landscapes and their biodiversity along with our marine and coastal ecosystems are a rich inheritance. There are a number of statutory designations protecting England’s terrestrial natural environment under both national and international law and by way of government policy.

In England, protected areas also include protected landscapes – areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks.

Many of the sites are in private ownership. Government helps landowners meet the costs of restoring or managing protected areas through the Countryside Stewardship scheme.

Sites of special scientific interest

Sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) conserve and protect the best of our wildlife, geological and physiographical heritage for the benefit of present and future generations. There are over 4,000 SSSIs in England, covering around 8% of the country.

SSSIs give legal protection to the best sites for wildlife and geology in England under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Read more about this legislation.

You can find details, including location, reason for notification, condition and management team contact details, of all SSSIs in England in Natural England’s designated sites system.

Natural England is responsible for notifying SSSIs, ensuring they are managed appropriately and assessing and monitoring their condition.

At the beginning of 2015 96.01% by area of SSSIs were in favourable or recovering condition, compared to the 95% target set out in the England Biodiversity 2020 Strategy.

Defra now wants to bring an increasing proportion of SSSIs into favourable condition, while seeking to maintain at least 96% of SSSI land in favourable or recovering condition. Defra is working closely with Natural England and a wide range of other organisations, including the voluntary sector, to achieve this, and ensuring the monitoring of sites to measure success.

Approximately 80% of SSSIs (by area) are internationally important for their wildlife and home to the rarest and most vulnerable habitats and species in Europe. These sites are designated as European special areas of conservation and special protection areas which form part of the European network of protected areas known as Natura 2000.

Some are also Ramsar sites of international wetland importance, and many are also National Nature Reserves (NNRs) or Local Nature Reserves (LNRs). National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are areas of national natural interest and are generally all SSSIs, which also provide a resource for scientific research and recreation.

Benefits of sites of special scientific interest in England and Wales

In June 2011 a study commissioned by Defra on the Benefits of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in England and Wales was published. The study explores the range of valuable ecosystem services that our network of SSSIs provide us with. It also gives estimates for the monetary value of the benefits derived from protecting biodiversity, which significantly exceed the costs of delivering them. This illustrates the importance of valuing the benefits of nature’s services - an approach that the government has committed to through the recently published Natural Environment White Paper.

The study showed that SSSIs provide a range of ecosystem services, including:

  • cultural services to people and the economy including tourism, education, sense of place and recreation as well as clear conservation benefits
  • regulating services including water purification, regulation of climate, air quality, water and natural hazards by protecting and enhancing natural processes
  • provisioning services that they produce,including goods such as food, timber, genetic resources and fresh water

Guidance for owners and occupiers of sites of special scientific interest

Find out about what you’re allowed to do on SSSIs.

Code of guidance

In accordance with Section 33 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) Defra has produced an SSSI Code of Guidance. This provides advice, recommendations and information on how the SSSI legislation should operate.

Code of Guidance, Sites of Special Scientific Interest: encouraging positive partnerships (PDF, 190KB, 50 pages)

This code was published in 2003 and therefore does not cover changes made by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.

Payments by Natural England under management agreements or in other circumstances are required to be made in accordance with guidance from ministers. The current guidelines on payments were published in 2001.

Planning guidance

The National Planning Policy Framework sets out planning policy as it relates to biodiversity and geological conservation.

Planning guidance explains the statutory requirements.

National Nature Reserves

England’s National Nature Reserves represent many of the finest wildlife and geological sites in the country. They are created to protect important wildlife habitats, while also providing a resource for scientific research and recreation. They are protected under:

More about National Nature Reserves

Natural England also endorses voluntary initiatives for geodiversity conservation such as the UK Geodiversity Action Plan and the English geodiversity forum.

Local Nature Reserves

Local Nature Reserves are places with wildlife or geological features of special interest locally. They offer people the chance to study nature, or simply to enjoy it. They are designated by local authorities under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

There is guidance for local authorities on setting up and managing Local Nature Reserves.

More about local nature reserves

Local authorities: making Local Nature Reserve byelaws

A local authority can apply byelaws, if necessary, to control activities that might damage plants or animals in a Local Nature Reserves.

To do this the local authority needs to agree proposed byelaws with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), then advertise them to the local community. Subject to any comments received, these byelaws are then confirmed by the secretary of state. See a guide to making Local Nature Reserve byelaws.

Local Sites

Local Sites are sites of local importance for nature conservation but are not legally protected.

Local Geological Sites are usually selected by voluntary geoconservation groups. Local Wildlife Sites are usually selected by the relevant Wildlife Trust, along with representatives of the local authority and other local wildlife conservation groups.

Local authorities provide data on local biodiversity direct to Defra, so we can assess the proportion of sites under positive conservation management .

See guidance for Wildlife Trusts and local authorities on identifying, selecting and managing Local Sites.

European sites

Natura 2000

Our best examples of habitats and species of birds that are either threatened or valuable within the EU are designated as:

These sites make up a network of sites across Europe called Natura 2000, protected under the EU Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora).

The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (as amended) has made the EU Habitats Directive and Birds Directive into English and Welsh law.

In the UK, these European sites are often also SSSIs or a number of SSSIs joined together.

International sites

Ramsar sites: wetlands designated for their International Importance

Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance, and mainly provide habitats for waterbirds.

They are designated under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that aims to stop the loss of wetlands.

In the UK, many Ramsar sites are also special protection areas and most have statutory underpinning as SSSIs.

More about Ramsar sites

UNESCO biosphere reserves

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere programme is an intergovernmental science programme focused on sustainable development. The UK Man and the Biosphere Committee oversees the activities in the UK.

There are 2 biospheres in England:

Global Geoparks (UNESCO endorsed)

The UK has 6 geoparks that are members of the global network, including 2 in England:

UNESCO natural World Heritage Sites

The UK has a number of natural World Heritage Sites, including England’s Dorset and East Devon Coast, also known as the Jurassic Coast.