Guidance

Sites of Special Scientific Interest and historical monuments

How SSSI are notified, responsibilities about the land, and how to manage it. Explains historical interest sites and their management

Introduction

There is a wide range of national and international statutory designations protecting England’s natural environment from development, pollution, climate change and unsustainable land management.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are important as they support plants and animals that find it difficult to survive elsewhere in the countryside, and they represent the country’s best wildlife and geological sites. SSSI are legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

This legislation gives Natural England powers to ensure better protection of SSSI and safeguard their existence into the future. If you are the owner - or occupier - of an SSSI, you have certain responsibilities that must be complied with.

Sites of historical interest - such as battlefields, archaeological areas - can also be protected if they are registered. The protection of these sites is covered by many different regulations.

This guide will outline how SSSI are notified, your responsibilities on SSSI land, and where to find guidance and funding for managing your land. It also explains what a site of historical interest is, how they are protected, and how they can be registered.

SSSI, monuments and cross compliance

To qualify for full payment under the Single Payment Scheme and other direct payments - eg the Environmental Stewardship schemes - you must meet all relevant cross compliance requirements. These requirements are split into two types:

  • Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs)
  • requirements to keep your land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAECs)

GAEC 6 - protecting, managing and maintaining SSSIs

If you have land which is notified as an SSSI, you must comply with requirements to protect and manage it.

You must manage your SSSI so that you conserve its special wildlife and geological features. This may mean grazing animals at particular times of year, controlling water levels and clearing scrub. Natural England local advisors can advise you on appropriate management. They will also be able to tell you about sources of funding. Many SSSIs are funded though the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. See the guide on Environmental Stewardship: the basics.

Before carrying out any management activity on your SSSI, you must notify Natural England in writing (unless your proposed activity is covered by a management agreement, scheme or notice) and obtain their consent.

If you are convicted of breaching this rule, or of damaging or destroying any of the features of special interest of an SSSI, you may be fined up to £20,000 in the Magistrate’s Court, or an unlimited amount in the Crown Court. The courts can also order you to restore the site at your own expense.

Natural England can bring neglected or mismanaged SSSI into good management by formal legal methods such as Management Schemes and Management Notices. In exceptional circumstances Natural England can compulsorily purchase an SSSI.

You can download GAEC 6 - SSSIs from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) website (PDF, 153K).

Scheduled monuments and cross compliance

GAEC 7 - preserving scheduled monuments

These requirements apply to you if you have a scheduled monument on your land.

If you wish to carry out works to the monument - both above and below ground level - you will need to apply to your regional English Heritage office for their written consent. This is known as scheduled monument consent (SMC). You can find English Heritage regional office contact details on the English Heritage website.

If you carry out works without SMC, you will generally be in breach of GAEC 7’s requirements - although there are some extenuating situations where this isn’t the case.

You must comply with the conditions attached to English Heritage’s consent.

You can download GAEC 7 - Scheduled monuments from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) website (PDF, 730K).

Sites of Special Scientific Interest

SSSI are legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. Natural England has powers to ensure farmers and landowners protect and manage their land SSSI effectively.

If you are buying land for the first time, or buying land to add to your holding, you can find out whether it is notified as an SSSI in England as these are registered as local land charges.

Notification of SSSI status

Natural England notifies a SSSI when an area of land has features which are of special interest according to scientific guidelines which identity diversity of habitats, geology and wildlife.

Read information on the guidelines for selection of biological SSSI on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) website.

Read information on the guidelines for the selection of earth science SSSI on the JNCC website.

If Natural England wishes to designate your land as an SSSI, it will notify you and register the SSSI as a local land charge.

You will then have four months to make any objections to the proposed SSSI.

Natural England may change the details of an existing notification if the special interest of an SSSI changes, or extend the SSSI if land nearby is found to be of interest. Proposals to vary or extend existing SSSI are treated in the same way as new notifications.

De-notification, where an SSSI designation is withdrawn by Natural England, only occurs in exceptional cases where an SSSI loses its features of special interest and there is no prospect of restoring them. Illegal damage or neglect would not lead to a withdrawal of notification.

You must manage your SSSI so that you conserve its special wildlife and geological features. This may mean grazing animals at particular times of year, controlling water levels and clearing scrub. Natural England local advisors can advise you on appropriate management. They will also be able to tell you about sources of funding. Many SSSI are funded though the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. See the guide on Environmental Stewardship: the basics

Before carrying out any management activity on your SSSI, you must notify Natural England in writing (unless your proposed activity is covered by a management agreement, scheme or notice) and obtain their consent.

If you are convicted of breaching this rule, or of damaging or destroying any of the features of special interest of an SSSI, you may be fined up to £20,000 in the Magistrate’s Court, or an unlimited amount in the Crown Court. The courts can also order you to restore the site at your own expense.

Natural England can bring neglected or mismanaged SSSI into good management by formal legal methods such as Management Schemes and Management Notices. In exceptional circumstances Natural England can compulsorily purchase an SSSI.

You can download GAEC 6 - SSSI from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) website (PDF, 153K).

Land owners or occupiers must obtain permission from Natural England before undertaking operations within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The SSSI notification package you receive includes a list of operations likely to damage your SSSI and therefore requiring consent - a list of operations requiring consent is available for each SSSI from Natural England.

If you wish to carry out any of the listed operations, you need to submit written notice - containing the details of the operation you wish to carry out - to your local Natural England office. Download a template of a notice of a proposal to carry out an operation on an SSSI from the Natural England website (DOC, 36K).

The notice must fully describe the nature, timing and location of the requested operation, as this often defines whether the operation is damaging, and may help influence the conditions Natural England decides to attach to a consent.

On receipt of your notice, Natural England must consider the likely impact on the special features of a SSSI within four months. Consent will then be either issued fully, issued with conditions, or refused.

It is often beneficial to discuss your proposals with Natural England in advance of submitting a formal application for consent, as they may be able suggest ways in which the operation may be made acceptable. If Natural England refuses consent - or attaches conditions - it must explain the reasons for the decision.

You do not need the permission of Natural England where:

  • you carry out emergency work and let Natural England know as soon as possible
  • the operation was authorised by a planning application granted on an application under Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990
  • you have statutory permission, authorisation or a licence from another public body to carry out specific operations, and that public body has consulted Natural England

Withdrawal or modification of existing consents

Where Natural England has previously issued a written consent to certain activities - but subsequently discovers that the activity is harmful to the special interest of the SSSI - it will try to reach an agreement with you regarding changes in the management of the land. Where agreement cannot be reached, Natural England may withdraw or modify the consent.

If you feel consent has been unfairly refused or withdrawn, or unfair conditions imposed, you can appeal to the Secretary of State.

Scheduled archaeological monuments

As agricultural practices have intensified, many historic sites in the countryside have been damaged.

What are archaeological sites?

The term ‘archaeological site’ covers a wide range of land - from an area where a single historical object was found, to the remains of monuments such as Stonehenge.

As archaeological sites can be damaged by any ground disturbance, managing them on cultivated land is very difficult. If you know where they are, you can manage them to prevent damage occurring. However, although some archaeological sites are easily recognisable - eg large monuments - many cannot be seen as they are buried below the level of normal ploughing, and regular cultivation can damage any hidden remains.

Indicators of an archaeological site on arable land include:

  • objects brought to the surface by ploughing - such as pottery, burnt clay, flint tools or metalwork
  • patches of stony ground and building materials, which indicate the presence of disturbed walls or roads
  • darker or lighter patches in a field, which indicate buried features - such as ditches
  • differences in crop growth caused by buried archaeological features - crops grow better in pits and ditches because the soil is deeper and wetter, whereas reduced soil depth over patches of stone, together with restricted water, can lead to stunted growth and early ripening

Your Local Government Archaeological Officer (LGAO) can offer advice about managing any historic features on your land. Find LGAO contact details on the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers UK (ALGAO) website.

For guidance relating to Scheduled Monuments, contact your English Heritage Regional Office (EHRO). You can find your nearest EHRO on the English Heritage website.

How to minimise damage to archaeological sites on arable land

Prevention of damage to archaeological sites requires careful site management. The best way to protect a ploughed archaeological site is to remove it from cultivation. You should consider putting the area down to permanent grass or long-term, non-rotational set-aside.

If removing the land from cultivation is not viable, there are measures you can take to minimise damage from agricultural practices. If possible, you should:

  • avoid tilling
  • use minimum cultivation techniques
  • maintain current plough depth to avoid new damage
  • avoid sub-soiling, pan busting, stone cleaning or new drainage operations
  • avoid growing potatoes, sugar beet, short rotation coppice or turf
  • avoid any harvesting operations that involve rutting, soil removal, significant soil compaction or soil erosion

What are scheduled monuments?

Scheduled monuments are nationally important sites protected by law from damaging works. It is an offence to carry out works on scheduled monuments without the consent of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Managing Earthwork Monuments in grassland

Archaeological earthworks are archaeological deposits seen as mounds or hollows - such as ditches and grassed-over stone walls. Archaeological earthworks in grassland must be managed to prevent damage, while still allowing nature conservation, agricultural use and recreation in the surrounding land. The following management techniques can minimise damage to earthwork monuments in grassland:

  • altering or influencing recreational routes, or altering ground conditions to increase its ability to withstand the stress created by recreational use
  • ensuring an adequate grazing regime is employed
  • restricting vehicle access on monuments - avoid disturbance by reducing the loads, changing the route, altering the time of use or altering the surface of the route to make it more sustainable
  • controlling burrowing animals so that their tunnelling activities do not disfigure the surface expression of the monument
  • minimising the presence of vegetation that is prejudicial to the long-term preservation of archaeological earthworks
  • ensuring sufficient land drainage, as this assists in maintaining good grass yields, and avoids waterlogging of the soil

Registers of battlefields, parks and gardens

If you own land that is the site of a battlefield, you can register it with the Register of Historic Battlefields. Read about the Register of Historic Battlefields on the English Heritage website.

Although registered battlefields receive little statutory protection, they are of great historical significance as the land may contain evidence - such as archaeological remains - which can increase our understanding of historical events. It is therefore important to take care to reduce risks to these sites.

You should have management plans for registered sites that:

  • ensure that metal detecting activities are undertaken on a responsible basis
  • provide for the conversion of battlesites from arable land to pasture when in especially sensitive locations - eg mass grave sites
  • develop footpaths along key site lines to create good vantage points
  • provide for the notification of the Battlefields Trust of planning applications affecting the setting of registered sites

Registered parks and gardens

There is a national record of historic parks and gardens that make a ‘rich and varied contribution’ to the landscape. This record is the Register of Parks and Gardens of special historic interest in England.

There are over 1600 sites included on the Register and they are divided into three grade bands according to their significance. The bands are:

  • grade II - sites of national designation
  • grade II* - sites of exceptional historic interest
  • grade I - sites of international importance

A park or garden will be entered onto the list by English Heritage. It will be added if they feel that the site is of ‘special historic interest’. There is a guide list of nine criteria that make a site ‘special’. Find the criteria for the register of historic parks and gardens on the English Heritage website.

Access the online application form and information on how to designate a heritage asset on the English Heritage website.

If a park or garden is on the register, local authorities must make provision for the protection of it in any policies they create and when allocating their resources.

If a planning application may affect a grade I or II* registered site, the Local Authority must consult English Heritage. They must also consult the Garden History Society on all applications affecting any registered sites.

There are other sites as well as parks and gardens that are included on the register. These are:

  • public parks
  • hospitals - designed landscape for historic hospitals and workhouses
  • cemeteries
  • garden squares

You can get more information on the parks and gardens register by contacting English Heritage’s National Monument Records Centre (NMR). You can email the NMR at nmrinfo@english-heritage.org.uk.

Listed and traditional farm buildings

Modern farming practices have led to traditional farm buildings becoming increasingly redundant. However, it remains important to care for them as they help people to understand the development of farming in an area.

Traditional farm buildings

The diversity of farm buildings reflects the varying geology, farming practices, settlement patterns and building techniques found across the country. The layout of historic farm buildings also shows how they functioned, and such buildings often have wildlife benefits, for example as bat roosts.

If you have a historic farm building on your land, you should - wherever possible - keep it in active farm use to safeguard its historic character. Try to gain a thorough understanding of the building in order to develop an effective conservation approach, and make sure you obtain specialist advice whenever you begin any maintenance and repair. You should also consider your historic farm buildings when creating development plans for your farm.

Listed buildings

A building can be listed if it is considered to be of special architectural and historic interest. It will then be protected under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.

There are three different levels of listed building:

  • Grade I buildings - these are buildings considered to be of exceptional interest, and are sometimes internationally important
  • Grade II* buildings - these are particularly important buildings, considered to be of more than a special interest
  • Grade II buildings - these are nationally important buildings, and of special interest

It is a criminal offence to carry out unauthorised works on a listed building. General maintenance and like-for-like repairs do not require permission, but if you wish to demolish a listed building, or alter or extend it in a way that affects its character as a building of special interest - eg replacement of windows, knocking down walls, or painting over brickwork - you must first apply for Listed Building Consent from your local planning authority. If you are not sure whether consent is required, contact your Local Authority Conservation Officer.

Before formally applying for Listed Building Consent, talk to your local conservation officer to get an outline of what would be acceptable, then obtain the consent form from your local authority. As detailed drawings will need to be provided with the form, you may wish to get a professional chartered surveyor or architect to draw up the plans for you. Read advice on what to provide with an application for consent on the English Heritage website.

Maintenance and repair of farm buildings

It is important to regularly inspect, maintain and repair your traditional buildings. In particular you should try to do the following things:

  • Avoid water damage - ensure that roofs remain watertight, keep gutters correctly aligned and clear of debris to prevent water over-spilling and running down walls, and remove climbing plants which can keep a building damp, damage masonry and hide defects that should not be left untreated.
  • Repair traditional farm buildings sensitively - use appropriate materials and techniques and - where possible - repair existing features rather than replace with new. Using the wrong materials or techniques could result in damage to the building, or affect the special character of the building. Always seek advice from specialists, and make sure you employ people who are experienced in the conservation of traditional buildings.

Find advice on building maintenance on the Faith in Maintenance website.

Building Preservation Notices (BPNs)

Planning authorities and National Park authorities have the power to serve a BPN on the owner of an unlisted building if it is of special architectural or historic interest and is in danger of demolition or alteration in such a way as to affect its character as a building of interest. A BPN is valid for six months, giving protection of that building and allowing time to carry out a formal assessment. If you apply to English Heritage for a listing triggered by a BPN, you must send a copy of it with your application.

Scheduled monuments

Scheduling refers to the legal system for protecting nationally important archaeological sites in England. Its aim is to preserve significant examples of the archaeological resource for the educational and cultural benefit of future generations.

Not all scheduled monuments are old, such as burial mounds - they could include archaeological sites from the prehistoric era or 20th-century remains from the coal industry, or World War II and Cold War sites.

If you wish to make repairs to a scheduled monument on your land, you may be eligible for a grant from English Heritage. Find grants for historic buildings, monuments and designed landscapes information on the English heritage website.

Planning permission

Certain development works to your property may also require planning permission from the local authority. Obtaining such permission does not remove the need for scheduled monument consent.

Class consents

Certain existing or seasonal operations don’t require an application because permission is granted automatically. These are known as ‘class consents’. Most common class consent permits are for agriculture or domestic gardening.

Treasure on your land

If you are digging your land and you find an object that you believe is treasure, you must report it to your district coroner within 14 days either of making the find, or of realising that the find is treasure. Such a report may be made in person or by letter, fax, telephone, or email.

Treasure is held to be:

  • any object with metallic content - other than a coin - of which at least 10 per cent by weight of the metallic content is gold or silver and that is at least 300 years old (if the object is prehistoric it will be Treasure if any part of it is gold or silver)
  • any group of two or more metallic objects - other than coins - of any composition of prehistoric date that come from the same find
  • any group of two or more coins from one find if they are at least 300 years old and have a gold or silver content of 10 per cent by weight (if the coins contain less than 10 per cent gold or silver there must be at least ten of them)
  • any object - whatever it is made of - that is found in the same place as, or had previously been together with, another object that is Treasure
  • any object that would previously have been Treasure Trove, but does not fall within the specific categories above - eg objects that are less than 300 years old, made substantially of gold or silver, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown

The coroner will give you a written acknowledgement that they have reported the find and will give you instructions on where to deliver your find - usually a local museum or archaeological body.

The body receiving the object will give you a Treasure Receipt Form, which should specify your contact details, their contact details, and details of the find and the circumstances of the find.

If your find is confirmed as Treasure, you might be eligible for a reward.

Read about finding treasure and how to deal with it on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website.

Finance and grants

In order to support the proper management and protection of heritage property by private owners - and at the same time encourage public access to these sites - some heritage property is eligible to receive capital tax relief.

You may receive conditional exemption from capital gains or inheritance tax if your land is of outstanding scenic, historic or scientific interest. However, in return for tax exemption, you must fulfil certain conditions. For example, you must:

  • maintain the land
  • preserve the lands character
  • allow reasonable public access

Natural England advises HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) as to whether land is eligible for conditional capital tax exemption, and under what conditions. It then monitors conditionally exempt land to ensure the relevant conditions are being met. If conditions are not being met, HMRC may remove the exemptions. Find guidance on conditional exemption on the Natural England website.

The criteria for outstanding land

When assessing whether land is ‘outstanding’ land, many factors are considered by trained specialists. However, the main criteria taken into account are:

  • rarity
  • representativeness of its type
  • cultural value
  • aesthetic appeal
  • condition

Heritage management plans

A Heritage Management Plan is a formal agreement with HMRC as to the detailed steps necessary to maintain the land and preserve its character. This helps reduce the likelihood of dispute. The plan details the day-to-day management of the land, describes the special features for which exemption has been granted and clearly defines the conditions that must be fulfilled in return for the property’s exemption from tax.

Download the Natural England guidance on how to prepare a heritage management plan on the Agricultural Document Library (AdLib) website (PDF, 997K).

Depending upon size of estate and complexity of issues, Heritage Management Plans can be expensive. There is a small, discretionary grant scheme budget, which offers 50 per cent of plan costs to eligible applicants until the budget is fully allocated.

Higher Level Environmental Stewardship

Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) is an agri-environment scheme which aims to deliver environmental benefits in land that is of significant environmental interest. HLS concentrates on complex types of management, where land managers are likely to need support and where agreements need to be tailored to local circumstances.

One objective of HLS is protection of the historic environment. When you apply for HLS under this objective, the general aim is broken down into regional priorities and - by being accepted into HLS - you are agreeing to deliver the HLS management requirements and adhere to the scheme terms and conditions.

You can find information about Higher Level Stewardship on the Natural England website and in the guide on Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).

Grants for historic buildings, monuments and designed landscapes

English Heritage runs a scheme which helps to fund the repair and conservation of significant historic buildings, monuments and designed landscapes. Grants are usually offered for urgent repairs or work which must be carried out within two years to prevent damage to important architectural, archaeological or landscape features.

In order to qualify, the project should be either:

  • a building listed at Grade I or II*
  • a scheduled monument
  • a designed landscape that is included in the Register of Parks
  • gardens at Grade I or II*

Grants for repairs to historic buildings and structures are also available under HLS. The restoration of historic buildings under HLS aims to conserve buildings that contribute to character of the landscape and are of historic interest. In addition Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) provides an option for the maintenance of weatherproof traditional farm buildings (ED1).

Find information on grants for historic buildings, monuments and designed landscapes on the English Heritage website.

The Heritage Lottery Fund also provides grants to projects involving heritage land. Find information on the Heritage Lottery Fund website.

Further information

DCMS Enquiry Line

020 7211 6200

Forestry Commission Helpline

0117 906 6000

English Heritage Helpline

0870 333 1181

HMRC Heritage Team

0115 974 2490

Natural England Enquiry Service

0845 600 3078

Defra Helpline

08459 33 55 77

RPA Helpline

0845 603 7777

Cross Compliance Helpline

0845 345 1302

Questions and answers for SSSI owners and occupiers on the Natural England website

Download a Natural England enforcement policy from the AdLib website (PDF, 111K)

Download the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) SSSIs: Encouraging Positive Partnerships from the AdLib website (PDF, 199K)

Download GAEC 6 - SSSIs from the RPA website (PDF, 153K)

Download Defra’s management agreement payments guidelines from the AdLib website (PDF, 253K)

Download notification policy guidance from the Natural England website (PFD, 122K)

Download de-notification policy guidance from the Natural England website (PFD, 110K)

Selection of biological SSSIs process explained on the JNCC website

Selection of earth science SSSIs process explained on the JNCC website

Download a notice of a proposal template to carry out an operation on an SSSI from the Natural England website (DOC, 136K)

Schedule of monuments information on the English Heritage website

Download the Cross Compliance scheduled monuments guidance for landowners from the Agricultural Document Library (ADLib) website (PDF, 818K)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) farming the historic landscape - caring for archaeological sites guidance on the ADLib website

Managing earthwork monuments explained on the Historic Environment Local Management website

LGAO contact details on the ALGAO website

Historic Battlefields register on the English Heritage website

Historic park and gardens registration criteria on the English Heritage website

Online application form for Listed Building Consent on the Natural England website

Building maintenance advice on the Faith in Maintenance website

Download GAEC 7 - Scheduled monuments from the RPA website (PDF, 730K)

SMC information on the English Heritage website

Schedule monuments guidance on the Magic website

Download the Department for Culture, Media and Sports’ Treasure Act 1996 Code of Practice (2nd Revisions) from the Agricultural Document Library website (PDF, 1.17MB)

Treasure Act explained on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website

Conditional exemption guidance for landowners on the Natural England website

Download the Natural England heritage management plan preparation guidance from the ADLib website (PDF, 997K)

HLS scheme guidance on the Natural England website

Historic buildings, monuments and designed landscapes grants information on the English Heritage website

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