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What are the types of nature conservation designations?

Sites of Special Scientific Interest
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are important as they support plants and animals that find it difficult to survive elsewhere in the countryside, and they represent the country’s best wildlife and geological sites. There are over 4,000 SSSIs in England, covering around 8% of the country and they are legally protected.

Approximately 80% of SSSIs (by area) are internationally important for their wildlife and home to the rarest and most vulnerable habitats and species in Europe. These sites are designated as European special areas of conservation and special protection areas which form part of the European network of protected areas known as Natura 2000. See the “European sites” section below for more details of the significance of these.

Some are also Ramsar sites of international wetland importance, and many are also National Nature Reserves (NNRs).

National Nature Reserves
England’s National Nature Reserves represent many of the finest wildlife and geological sites in the country. They are created to protect important wildlife habitats, while also providing a resource for scientific research and recreation.

European Sites
Our best examples of habitats and species of birds that are either threatened or valuable within the European Union are designated as special areas of conservation (SAC) and special protection areas (SPA). These sites make up a network of sites across Europe called Natura 2000, protected under the EU Habitats Directive. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (as amended) (the Habitats Regulations) has applied the EU Habitats Directive and Birds Directive to England. In England, these European sites are often also SSSIs or a number of SSSIs joined together.

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)
Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are strictly protected sites designated under the Habitats Regulations. The habitat types and species are those considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level (excluding birds which are covered by Special Protection Areas).

Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are strictly protected sites classified in accordance with the EC Birds Directive. They are classified for rare and vulnerable birds and for regularly occurring migratory species.

Ramsar sites

Ramsar sites are wetlands which are considered to be of international significance. They are designated as protected sites under the Ramsar Convention, a treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Many of these sites in the UK were initially selected on the basis of their importance to waterbirds, and are therefore classified as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive. However, their importance to non-bird species are increasingly taken into account when selecting new sites and reviewing existing sites.

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