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What are the types of nature conservation designations?

International and European Designations:

Our best examples of habitats and species of birds that are either threatened or valuable within the European Union are designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA). These sites make up a network of sites across Europe called Natura 2000, protected under the EU Habitats Directive. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (as amended) (the Habitats Regulations) has applied the EU Habitats Directive and Birds Directive to England. In England, these European sites are often also designated as SSSIs or a number of SSSIs joined together.

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)
Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are strictly protected sites designated under the Habitats Regulations. The habitat types and species are those considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level (excluding birds which are covered by Special Protection Areas).

Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are strictly protected sites classified in accordance with the EC Birds Directive. They are classified for rare and vulnerable birds and for regularly occurring migratory species.

Ramsar Wetland

Ramsar sites are wetlands which are considered to be of international significance. They are designated as protected sites under the Ramsar Convention, a treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Many of these sites in the UK were initially selected on the basis of their importance to waterbirds, and are therefore classified as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive. However, their importance to non-bird species are increasingly taken into account when selecting new sites and reviewing existing sites.

National Designations:

Sites of Special Scientific Interest
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. There are over 4,000 SSSIs in England, covering around 8% of the country and they are legally protected in England and Wales by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 Natural England are responsible for their designation. 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. and as such have additional European designations as set out above

National Nature Reserve

National Nature Reserves were established to protect some of our most important habitats, species and geology, and to provide ‘outdoor laboratories’ for research. Most NNRs offer great opportunities to schools, interest groups and the public to experience wildlife first hand and learn more about nature conservation. There are 224 NNRs in England, representing approximately 0.7% of the country’s land surface, with the largest being The Wash. Natural England manages two thirds of NNRs with the remaining reserves managed by authorities approved by Natural England, such as the Forestry Commission and the RSPB.

Marine Conservation Zone

Marine Conservation Zones are areas that protect a range of nationally important, rare or threatened habitats and species. There are 91 MCZs in waters around England. They were designated in three phases in 2013, 2016 and 2019 and this completed the UK’s Blue Belt and contribution to the ecologically coherent network in the North East Atlantic, in terms of the representation of species and habitats.

Locally Protected Sites:

Local Nature Reserve

Local Nature Reserves can be created by local authorities, or town and parish councils if the district council have given them power to do this. The local authority must control the LNR land, either through ownership or a lease or agreement with the owner. At least part of it should be publicly accessible. Sites can be selected for their wildlife, geology, education or enjoyment (without disturbing wildlife).

Local Wildlife Site

Local Wildlife Sites are identified and selected locally by partnerships of local authorities, nature conservation charities, statutory agencies, ecologists and local experts, and their selection is based on the most important, distinctive and threatened species and habitats. They are not legally protected in the same way as national and European sites, although the species within them may be. However, they are safeguarded through local planning policies. 5% of England’s land area is designated as a Local Wildlife Site. Local Wildlife Trusts work in partnership with landowners to protect and manage these areas.

Local Geological Site

Local Geological Sites (formerly RIGS) were first established in 1990 and are sites that have been designated for their variety of rocks, minerals, fossils and landscape together with the natural processes that form them. Geoconservation sites specifically highlight local geological diversity and earth heritage. Formal designation comes from the Local Authority, via Local Sites Partnerships and they have to meet nationally agreed criteria. Sites are selected by reference to one or more of four basic criteria, which are education and lifelong learning, intrinsic scientific interest, aesthetic value and historical value and context.

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