A Site of Special Scientific Interest or SSSI is a conservation designation denoting a protected area in the United Kingdom. SSSIs are the basic 'building block' of nature conservation legislation and most other legal nature/geological conservation designations are based upon them, including National Nature Reserves, Ramsar Sites, Special Protection Areas, and Special Areas of Conservation.
The process of designating a site as a Special Scientific Interest is called notification; it involves a number of steps, including consultation with the site's owner. If a site passes through this process and becomes a SSSI it is said to have been "notified". Sites which are notified due to their biological interest are commonly known as Biological SSSIs, and those which are notified for their geological interest Geological SSSIs. A minority of sites are notified for both their biological and geological interest.
The decision to notify an SSSI is made by the official nature conservation body (the "appropriate conservation body") for that part of the country: Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage or the Countryside Council for Wales. SSSIs were originally set up by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, but the current legal framework for SSSIs is provided by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, amended 1985 and 2000 (by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), and also the Water Resources Act 1991 and related legislation.
SSSI notification can cover any "land" within the area of the conservation body, including dry land, land covered by fresh water, and land covered by the sea at high tide — but not the sea below Mean Low Water.
In Northern Ireland the equivalent designation is made by the Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland) under the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and is called Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI).
SSSIs are not necessarily open to the public, nor are they necessarily owned by a conservation organisation or by the Government — in fact, their access and ownership are no different from the rest of the countryside.
The formal notification of SSSIs is made to a number of different people: central government, local planning authorities, all the owners and occupiers of the land, and various other public bodies, such as water companies.
The notification includes a description ("citation") of the interest, a map of the boundary, and a list of activities requiring consultation (see below).
The law protects the interest features of SSSIs from development, from other damage, and (since 2000) also from neglect. Protection is not necessarily absolute — generally it requires the SSSI interest to be considered properly against other factors.
Local Planning Authorities are required to have policies in their development plans which protect SSSIs. They are then required to consult the appropriate conservation body over planning applications which might affect the interest of an SSSI. The effect of this is to prevent development which harms the interest — except where the value of that interest is over-ridden by some more important factor, for example a requirement for a major road or port. The requirement for consultation covers any development which might affect the interest, not just developments within the SSSI itself — for example, a development a long way upstream of a wetland SSSI might require consultation. Note that some developments might be neutral or beneficial, even if they are within the SSSI itself — the critical point is whether they harm the interest features.
The owners and occupiers of SSSIs are required to consult the appropriate conservation body if they want to carry out (or permit) activities on the land. Activities requiring consultation are listed in the notification, and are called "Potentially Damaging Operations" (PDOs), or more correctly "Operations Likely to Damage" the SSSI interest (OLDs). In practice, there is a standard list of OLDs which is almost the same for each SSSI — the list for an SSSI will only omit activities impossible on the particular SSSI (such as fishing where there is no water), and things requiring planning permission (which are covered by the local planning authority consultation process). Purely geological SSSIs often have much shorter OLD lists. The OLDs are not "banned" activities — the list includes activities which would damage the interest, but also many which might be beneficial. For example, "grazing" would require consultation, even on a chalk grassland or heathland where grazing is an essential part of management.
If a proposed activity would not affect the interest or is beneficial to it, then the conservation body will issue a "consent" allowing it to be carried out without further consultation. If it would be harmful, consent cannot be issued, and the activity must not be carried out. Sometimes a consent will be issued with conditions, for example limiting the timing, location or intensity of an activity. The process is slightly different where the owner or occupier is a public body, but the effect is broadly the same.
The appropriate conservation body sends all SSSI owners and occupiers a statement of what the ideal management should be (there may be grants available to help fund management). Owners and occupiers are encouraged to carry out this management, which in many (but not all) cases will be a continuation of the historical management of the land. Where an owner or occupier is unwilling or unable to carry out management, ultimately the conservation body can require it to be done. Public bodies which own or occupy an SSSI have a duty to manage it properly.
The law protecting SSSIs now covers everyone, not just public bodies and the owners and occupiers of SSSIs. Previously, activities by "third parties" were not illegal under the SSSI legislation. This meant that damaging activities such as fly-tipping, intensive bait-digging or trial-biking on an SSSI were only prevented if done (or permitted) by the owner or occupier -- not if done by trespassers or under public rights. This loophole was closed by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
List of SSSIsEdit
A page of links to lists of English, Welsh and Scottish SSSIs can be found here.
ASSIs in Northern Ireland Edit
- Countryside Council for Wales website with online directory of all Welsh SSSIs
- English Nature website with online searchable directory of all English SSSIs
- Scottish Natural Heritage website with online directory of all Scottish SSSIs
- The history of SSSIs
Adapted from the Wikipedia article "Site of Special Scientific Interest" http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Site_of_Special_Scientific_Interest&oldid=110893027