Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) give legal protection to the best sites for wildlife and geology in England. The first SSSIs were identified in 1949 when the then Nature Conservancy notified local authorities of SSSIs, so their conservation interest could be taken into account during the development planning process.
Natural England now has responsibility for identifying and protecting the SSSIs in England under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). The designation of SSSIs includes a two stage process; notification and confirmation.
Natural England has a duty to notify SSSIs when it is of the opinion that an area of land is of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features. This opinion is based on the exercise of specialist judgement which is informed by scientific guidelines.
These guidelines assist Natural England in the identification of sites that appear to merit notification as SSSIs and are public documents available to all interested parties. In deciding what is special, Natural England aims to identify the most important areas for the range of habitats and geology, and the diversity of wildlife occurring naturally in England.
In November 2008, Natural England's Executive Board agreed a SSSI Notification Strategy: (182kb) which committed to keep SSSIs under review. Natural England aims to ensure that the SSSI series continues to include all of our most valuable nature conservation and earth heritage sites. The strategy will also seek to deliver a SSSI series that is resilient in the face of natural processes and environmental pressures, including the predicted effects of climate change.
By law, we must notify all owners and occupiers of any land that we consider to be of special interest because of any of its flora, fauna or geological and physiographical features. We must also inform the local planning authority, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and certain public bodies, such as the Environment Agency, water and sewerage companies and internal drainage boards. An SSSI is also registered as a local land charge, which means that all future owners and occupiers will be bound by the laws protecting SSSIs.
Owners and occupiers are given four months to make objections and representations about the notification of a new SSSI. When we notify owners and occupiers, we send them a package of information to explain the legal implications of a notification, including:
a citation explaining the reasons for notification;
a statement of Natural England’s views on the management of the SSSI. These views may closely reflect the current management of the site, especially if this has contributed to developing its wildlife value;
a list of operations requiring Natural England's consent; and
a map showing the SSSI.
Any unresolved objections or issues raised within the four-month period are then considered by the Board of Natural England before they decide whether to confirm or withdraw a notification. Members of the Board are appointed by the Secretary of State, and are independent of Natural England staff and the Executive Board, The Board will use their own personal and expert judgement on the issue, and will carefully consider all concerns and objections.
If the special scientific interest of a SSSI changes, we may change the details of the notification. We may also extend the SSSI if land nearby is considered to be of special interest. Proposals to vary or extend SSSIs are treated in the same way as new notifications.
If SSSIs, or parts of SSSIs, lose their features of special interest and there is no prospect of the interest being restored, the SSSI designation may be withdrawn, a process called 'de-notification'. Sites are only denotified in exceptional cases, and sites that have been illegally damaged, or suffered from neglect, will not be denotified.