Sites of special scientific interest – what you need to know

There has always been a fundamental tension between the management of land to maximise agricultural output and the minimising of wider environmental costs. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ('Defra') released a set of targets aimed at protecting the natural environment. The “30-by-30” target aims to ensure 30% of land in England is covered by environmental protection by 2030.

Most landowners and land managers support the government in meeting this goal and are very conscious of ensuring that natural environment is conserved, enhanced, and managed for the benefit of present and future generations. However, farmers also face a range of potentially complex and competing demands for environmental responsibility, climate action and sustainable food production, whilst trying to remain financially viable.

What is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI)?

The “30-by-30” target has meant that regulators such as Natural England and Natural Resources Wales are under pressure to designate more land as sites of special scientific interest (‘SSSI’). An SSSI is the designation by law of an area of land that is of special scientific interest for its flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features under section 28(1)(b) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (‘WCA 1981’).

SSSIs exist to give legal protection to the most important sites for wildlife, geology and landform in England and Wales. The owners and occupiers of SSSIs are restricted in what they can do to and, on the land, and must manage the land in a way that does not cause any damage to it.

Designation of SSSIs

The designation of an SSSI is known as a notification. Where the regulator believes that an area of land is of special interest, they have a duty under WCA 1981, s28 to notify. The regulator must notify:

  1. The local planning authority
  2. Every owner and occupier of any of the land
  3. The Secretary of State
  4. Public bodies

They must also write to landowners and land managers and inform them that they believe that their land has special conservation value. The notification letter will explain the legal implications of the notification and must contain the reasons for designation, a statement of the regulator's views on management of the SSSI, a list of operations requiring the regulators consent, a map identifying the land subject to the notification, the owner and occupier's legal responsibilities and information on how to share opinions or objections to the designation.  

The notification has effect immediately from the date of notification. After formal notification has been given, the regulator may within 9 months either withdraw or confirm it (with or without changes).

The effects of designating land as SSSI

The notification of an SSSI has several legal effects and landowners and land managers are restricted by law on what they can do on the land. Some of the legal effects of the notification are as follows:

  • Owners and occupiers must give the regulator notice before carrying out, causing or permitting to be carried out any of the activities in the list of operations set out in the Notification Guidance. These are known as ‘Operations Requiring Consent’ (ORCs).
  • Owners of land included in the SSSI have a legal obligation to notify the regulator within 28 days if the ownership or occupancy of the land changes.
  • It is an offence for any person intentionally or recklessly to destroy or damage the special features of the SSSI or to disturb any of the fauna.
  • Other public bodies must consult Natural England before carrying out or authorising any works that may damage the SSSI.
  • It gives the regulator the ability to require the management of the SSSI by way ofmanagement schemes and notices.

Main concerns

Whilst many landowners and occupiers support the protection of the natural environment and play a key part in nature recovery, the government’s commitment to “30 by 30” may result in pressure to designate land without properly considering the economic and social impacts of doing so.

For example, the impact of designation can be very difficult for many farming businesses and landowners may find that the value of their land decreases or that they are refused permission to carry on their regular farming practices leading to farms that have been in the family for generations going out of business or at the very least, facing great strain. If there was proper financial support from government to meet the challenges an SSSI can cause then the reaction of landowners might be very different.

Some consider that the SSSI scheme alone is insufficient to ensure that conservation in the UK is flexible enough to adapt to changing land use and climate change and the "30-by-30" target could be achieved through other options. Possible alternatives could include long-term land use agreements or alternative approaches to protection such as other effective area-based conservation measures which support landowners and the natural environment.

Our involvement

If you find yourself in the situation described above, then you do need to take advice. We have been working closely with the NFU on Penwith Moors and have been supporting farmers impacted on that new SSSI.

Our Experts in the Field podcast produced by Foot Anstey further explores the impact of an SSSI on farmers and landowners. Listen to the podcast here or at the below.

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