Wetland grasses

A brief guide to nature designations

Explore our brief guide to nature designations and learn more about Ramsars, SPAs and SACs.


SSSI - Site of Special Scientific Interest (pronounced as triple-S-eye or 'S-S-S-I')

  • Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, (Britain's domestic legislation to implement the Birds Directive) the government has a duty to notify as an SSSI any land which in its opinion is of special interest for its flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features. SSSIs are thus Britain's best sites nationally for wildlife and geology.
  • More than 4000 SSSIs in England, covering around 7 per cent of land area
  • There are just more than 100 SSSIs in Kent
  • In England, the statutory nature conservation body responsible for identifying and protecting these special sites is Natural England (NE), the Government-funded agency whose purpose is to promote the conservation of England's wildlife and natural features. 
  • A SSSI is not necessarily owned by a conservation organisation or by the Government - they can be - and in fact the large majority are - owned by private landowners.
  • A SSSI is given certain protection against damaging operations, which must be authorised by NE. A SSSI also has a certain amount of planning protection, but in practice this is sometimes not sufficient to prevent development.
  • The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 strengthened the Wildlife & Countryside Act, including giving NE greater powers to prevent damage to SSSIs. 
  • As well as their value for wildlife, many SSSIs play an important part in local culture and economies and provide great opportunities for people to enjoy wildlife and landscape.    

NNR - National Nature Reserve/MNR - Marine Nature Reserve

  • NNRs are managed, on behalf of the UK, by the national statutory nature conservation bodies, ie NE or other approved bodies. They are places for important wildlife and natural features in the UK. There are about 390 NNRs nationally (more than 200 in England, more than 50 in Scotland, 76 in Wales and nearly 50 in Northern Ireland). There is a presumption against development, but no legal protection.
  • MNRs are the marine equivalent of NNRs. However, since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 became law only three MNRs have been designated in the UK. There is one in England, Lundy Island off the north Devon coast (1986); one in Wales, Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast (1990); and one in Northern Ireland, Strangford Lough, Co Down (1995). The three MNRs together only cover 0.12 per cent of UK territorial waters, ie out to 12 nautical miles (22km).


Ramsar Sites

  • An international meeting on wetlands and waterfowl, held in the Iranian town of Ramsar in 1971, first recognised the need for cooperative wetland conservation worldwide. An international convention was devised, requiring the government signatories to agree to identify and protect their most significant wetlands for wildlife, especially waterfowl. The UK signed this convention in 1973 and there are currently 133 territories worldwide which have also signed.
  • Under the convention, each government must select its best wetlands according to very clear criteria, and these Ramsar Sites are then protected from development in all but the most exceptional cases.
  • Criteria include a wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds and a wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports 1 per cent of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterbird.
  • Ramsar sites are, as a matter of policy, subject to the same strict legal protection as European designated nature conservation sites, but without recourse to the EU courts.

SPA - Special Protection Areas

  • In 1979, the European Community created a Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds
  • The Birds Directive contains duties on Member States in relation to all species of wild birds which are to be undertaken via domestic legislation.
  • In particular, it requires member states to preserve enough wild places to safeguard migratory and vulnerable bird species. These are to form a network of protected areas called Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
  • Member States must take appropriate steps to avoid pollution or deterioration of SPAs, or any significant disturbances affecting the birds. 
  • The directive also requires that Member States shall pay particular attention to the protection of wetlands, especially those of international importance.    

SAC - Special Areas for Conservation

  • In 1992, the European Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats was created, requiring Member States to identify and designate areas of land as Special Areas for Conservation (SACs) on account of their importance for wildlife other than birds.
  • All sites in the UK so far identified are currently known as Candidate SACs (cSACs) but have full protection under the Habitats Directive, the same level of protection as SPAs. UK policy requires all SPAs and SACs to be designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).    

What happens if a Ramsar site, SPA or SAC is threatened?

Prior to the site being damaged, the case has to have been proven that there are no alternative solutions and that the development is in the overriding public interest. If this is proven, habitat must be created that compensates for the loss. Although open to some degree of interpretation, the law logically implies that this replacement habitat must ideally be created and ecologically functioning before damage is done to the original site. Nor must the compensation habitat damage any conservation value itself, it, and it must provide at least equal and comparable habitat to that being lost.

Common eider Somateria mollissima, foraging in rocks, Northumberland