England is not the richest place for wildlife in the world. Tropical rainforests, some over 100 million years old, are the richest in terms of overall species numbers. England isn’t even especially rich in wildlife compared to most other countries in Europe, not by a long chalk. But amazingly, and considering this island of which we are part was wiped absolutely clean by glaciers until around 10,000 years ago, England does have internationally important wildlife. Some of this wildlife is in “wild” nature – like the great seabird colonies living on rocks and islands around the coast. Most of it though is in “semi-natural” habitats, where native wildlife species have adapted to living in habitats that are created as a result of human activities, such as farming, housing, mineral extraction and forestry.
Some of this wildlife occurs in sites protected under European legislation. These are European Sites such as Special Areas of Conservation (EC Habitats Directive) and Special Protection Areas (Birds Directive), as well as Ramsar sites (Wetlands) and others.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest are all nationally important sites and these are protected in various laws starting with the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. Pretty much all the internationally important sites are SSSIs. There are over 4100 SSSI in England (including geological ones) covering 1076986ha (as of 2008 – data from Natural England SONE report).
Outside SSSIs, there are Local Wildlife Sites – these are identified locally using local criteria. Some of them are certainly nationally important, but haven’t been made into SSSIs for various reasons. Many Local Sites, but not all, support “priority” habitats and species – these are the elements of biodiversity which are legally recognised as being “of principal importance” in the NERC Act. According to the Wildlife Trusts, many of whom manage Local Sites projects, England’s 40,000 local wildlife sites cover 711,000 hectares (average size 18ha).
So we could add SSSIs to Local Sites and get an area of 1787986ha of all wildlife sites. England’s area is 13050388ha. So England’s wildlife sites cover 13.7% of the land surface. This isn’t the complete picture though. Even in very well surveyed counties like Dorset, new Local Sites continue to be discovered. These tend to be smaller sites that have been overlooked because they are away from public roads or footpaths, though not always. It’s certainly true that the undiscovered Local Sites will be smaller than the average.
There is also a much larger area (some estimates suggest another 20% on top of the 13.7%)) of England that supports wildlife but where individual sites do not qualify for Local Site status. Some kinds of wildlife eg farmland birds do not lend themselves to a site-based approach, as they move around so much – it’s very difficult to designate a large Local Wildlife Site covering hundreds of hectares of farmland for farmland birds – it wouldn’t mean very much anyway – how would having a large arable site for farmland birds help with those birds’ conservation?
And then there are also the places which have some wildlife but because communities of eg plants are not diverse enough, or the species present are not rare enough, they will never attain Local Site status. They are of course still very valuable. Indeed it is these that often make up the places that people visit regularly and enjoy being with nature, in nature. They could be parks, gardens, pony paddocks, golf courses and other open spaces in urban areas, farmland that has not been completely industrialised and other land where common wildlife lives (eg associated with mineral extraction).
We recognise how important these grasslands are to communities. That’s why we’re developing community grassland projects, such as the at Hocombe Mead near our head office in Eastleigh. This project showed very clearly how much local communities value their local greenspaces.
In the current planning debate around the NPPF the focus has been on threats to SSSIs, threats to Local Sites, the Green Belt and so on. And it is deeply worrying that these sites should be under greater threat from development at a time when they are already threatened by so many other pressures.
But the places where people actually experience nature on a daily basis are not the best sites, they are the normal everyday run of the mill sites. These are actually the sites that are most threatened by the changes to planning law proposed in the National Planning Policy Framework. That little pony paddock you walk past on the way to the station, the small patch of scrubby open space that’s a bit neglected but full of common birds or butterflies. These are the places threatened by the “presumption in favour of development” at the core of the NPPF. These are the places under threat as Local Authorities come under pressure to sell off “surplus” land – here’s an interesting example of that. These are the places where houses will be built, as well as the larger developments in open countryside. These are the places that create a “sense of place”.