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Exclusive: The UK’s rarest and most threatened wildlife sites are not being protected properly

More than half of “key features” on special interest sites across Scotland, England and Northern Ireland have not had condition checks in the last six years.

Conservation groups have warned key wildlife sites are being neglected as data reveals routine assessments have been missed for thousands of protected assets.

The data, obtained exclusively by The Big Issue, shows that just a third (33.3 per cent) of nature “units” on England’s sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) were assessed by Natural England between 2016 and 2022. 

SSSIs are protected areas of high ecological importance which often contain key habitats or rare animal and plant species. Parts of the Peak District, Ben Nevis and the Cotswolds are protected by an SSSI designation.

According to guidelines from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, “interest features” on protected sites – such as woodlands, grass and bogs – should be monitored at least once within six years. 

Data supplied by the nature agencies of Scotland and Northern Ireland also showed a monitoring rate of below 50 per cent in the six years between 2016 and 2022.

In Northern Ireland, where the equivalent to SSSIs is areas of special scientific interest, (ASSIs) 44 per cent of key natural features were monitored at least once in the past six years.

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In Scotland, 29 per cent of natural features were assessed between 2016 and 2022, though SSSIs as a whole had a higher monitoring rate, with 37.7 per cent of SSSI sites given a full condition assessment in the last six years. 

Scotland’s nature agency, NatureScot, said the data spanned two of its monitoring periods, and added that the pandemic “severely limited” its ability to carry out monitoring in 2021 and 2022. 

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) did not supply data for the years requested, but pointed out that the agency had carried out a “baseline assessment” to determine the condition of all its protected sites in 2020. 

NRW said it did not hold data on the number of condition assessments which have taken place since 2020. 

Open data shows that some features on the UK’s most well-loved nature sites haven’t been assessed in more than a decade. On one SSSI in the Peak District, several woodland, fen and bog features were last assessed in 2009. 

The data has been met with concern by conservation groups, who point out that even when they are assessed, many SSSIs are shown to be in poor condition

According to Natural England, just 38 per cent of SSSIs in England were in “favourable condition” as of March 2021. Given the low rate of monitoring, conservationists fear the real figure could be much lower. 

“In many cases we just don’t know what condition our SSSIs are in – many haven’t been properly assessed for years – but of those we do know about, just 38 per cent are in good condition,” Richard Benwell, CEO of the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) said. 

Benwell said a lack of monitoring can lead to a lack of effective management of SSSI, with sites “left out of sight and out of mind.”

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In 2020, prime minister Boris Johnson committed to protecting 30 per cent of the UK’s land by 2030 to boost biodiversity, amounting to an additional 4 per cent being designated in the coming years.

Conservation groups fear, however, that the target will be meaningless without additional investment for monitoring and protection activities. 

Katherine Hawkins, Living Landscape Manager at The Wildlife Trusts said: “The Nature Recovery Green Paper seems to suggest that all current protected site designations meet the criteria and contribute to the 30% target.  However, more than half of our SSSIs are currently not delivering biodiversity outcomes as they are not in favourable condition. 

“It is neglect and lack of management that is causing many of the issues for our protected areas.  Protection alone, whilst critical, is not sufficient. Active and effective management is key.”

Benwell of the WCL added that Natural England’s local scientific and advisory functions have been “hollowed out” in recent years.

“The government’s Nature Recovery Green Paper suggests that local experts should be given more discretion in protecting nature sites, but at the moment those experts simply don’t exist. Rapid investment is needed in local, place-based conservation expertise to bring the state of our SSSIs into the light and to start to set them right,” he added.

Oliver Harmar, chief operating officer for Natural England, said: “England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) protect our rarest and most threatened wildlife and geology and represent the best in nature this country has to offer.

“By area, 38% of SSSIs are currently in favourable condition and we know much more needs to be done to improve these vital sites. That’s why we are focusing on restoring those sites that are in an unfavourable condition, to secure their wildlife and geological value for the long term.

“We are working to improve and increase SSSI site monitoring – this year (2022/23), Natural England aims to assess 2,000 habitat, species and geological features.”

A spokesperson for NatureScot said the agency was committed to a new 10 year monitoring cycle for sites which will “maximise the effectiveness of our monitoring” using new technologies and methods for assessing SSSI condition.

“It’s encouraging that when we include those features that are assessed as unfavourable but on the road to recovery, then 81 per cent of features on Sites of Special Scientific Interest across Scotland are either doing well or projected to improve,” she added.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for Northern Ireland have been contacted for comment.

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