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A Site of Special Scientific Interest or SSSI is a conservation designation denoting a protected area in the United Kingdommarker. SSSIs are the basic building block of site-based nature conservation legislation and most other legal nature/geological conservation designations in Great Britainmarker are based upon them, including National Nature Reserves, Ramsar Site, Special Protection Areas, and Special Areas of Conservation.

SSSI selection and conservation

Sites notified for their biological interest are known as Biological SSSIs, and those notified for geological or physiographic interest are Geological SSSIs. Many SSSIs are notified for both biological and geological interest.

Biological SSSIs

Biological SSSIs may be selected for various reasons, governed by published SSSI Selection Guidelines.

Within each area, the best examples of each significant natural habitat may be notified, and for rarer habitats all examples may be included.

Sites of particular significance for various taxonomic groups may be selected (for example birds, dragonflies, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, etc.)—each of these groups has its own set of selection guidelines.

Conservation of biological SSSIs usually involves continuation of the natural and artificial processes which resulted in their development and survival—for example, the continued traditional grazing of heathland or chalk grassland.

In Englandmarker, the designating body for SSSIs, Natural England, selects biological SSSIs from within Natural Areas, which are areas with particular landscape and ecological characteristics. Watsonian vice counties were formerly used for selection over the whole of Great Britain—in this context, these are referred to as Areas of Search (AoSs).

Geological SSSIs

Geological SSSIs are selected by a different mechanism, covering the whole of Great Britain. Academic geological specialists have reviewed geological literature, selecting the most important sites for each geological topic (or block). Each of these sites is published in the Geological Conservation Review, and so becomes a GCR site. All GCR sites (but no other sites) are notified as geological SSSIs. A GCR site may contain features from several different topic blocks—for example a site may contain strata containing vertebrate fossils, insect fossils and plant fossils and it may also be of importance for stratigraphy.

Geological SSSIs fall into two types, having different conservation priorities:

Exposure sites

These are where quarries, disused railway cuttings, cliffs or outcrops give access to extensive geological features, such as particular rock layers. If the exposure becomes obscured, the feature could in principle be re-exposed elsewhere. Conservation of these sites usually concentrates on maintenance of access for future study.

Deposit sites

These are features which are limited in extent or physically delicate—for example, they include small lenses of sediment, mine tailings, caves and other landforms. If such features become damaged they cannot be recreated, and conservation usually involves protecting the feature from erosion or other damage.

Legal status

An SSSI may be made on any area of land which is considered to be of special interest by virtue of its fauna, flora, geological or physiographical features.

The decision to notify an SSSI is made by the official nature conservation body (the appropriate conservation body) for that part of the United Kingdom: Northern Ireland Environment Agency, 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 in 1985 and further substantially amended in 2000 (by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), in Scotland by the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and in Northern Ireland by the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands Order 1985. SSSIs are also covered under the Water Resources Act 1991 and related legislation.

In Northern Ireland an SSSI is called Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI).

SSSI notification can cover any "land" within the area of the conservation body, including dry land, land covered by freshwater, and land covered by the sea at high tide—but not the sea below Mean Low Water.

SSSIs are not necessarily open to the public, nor are they necessarily owned by a conservation organisation or by the British 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 of the interest (citation), 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 (such a development might not be within or even close to the SSSI itself). 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 or oil pipe. 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 Scotland these are known as Operations Requiring Consent - ORCs). 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" (a standard item on the list) 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 similar.

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 trail 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. The effect was, for example to allow control of legal trail biking on SSSIs (where damaging to the interest), but not illegal trail biking. This loophole was closed by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.



The process of designating a site as a Special Scientific Interest is called notification; this is followed by consultation with the site's owners and occupiers, and the notification is then confirmed or withdrawn (in whole or part).


At the time of the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981 many SSSIs were already in existence, having been notified over the previous decades under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Each of these was considered in turn, and either denotified, or renotified—brought under the provisions of the new Act, often with boundary changes. This complex process took some ten years to complete for the several thousand SSSIs.

Areas of Search

For the purposes of selecting candidate SSSIs, Natural England and its predecessors use a system termed "Areas of Search" (AOSs). In England these are largely based on the 1974-1996 administrative counties (with larger counties divided into two or more areas), whereas in Scotlandmarker and Walesmarker they are based around districts. The individual AOSs are between and in size. There are 59 AOSs in England, 12 in Wales, and 44 in Scotland.

See also


  1. NCC 1989, page 17, note 4.11
  2. NCC 1989, page 18, where all AOS boundaries are mapped


External links

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