What the heck? SSSI’s

An informatory series, to educate on topics relevant to any of our campaigns.

What are they?

A Site of Special Scientific Interest1 (SSSI) is a protected area considered special by virtue of the wildlife, geology or landform contained within it. There are over 6900 SSSI‘s in the UK! (See image below!)

Image depicting the listed SSSI’s across the UK as of 2020.
© Scottish Natural Heritage Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right (2020)
© Natural England copyright. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2020.
© Natural Resources Wales copyright. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2020.
© Northern Ireland Environment Agency copyright. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2020.

SSSI status is a higher-level designation than a Local Wildlife Site which means they are afforded partial legal protection to prevent damage from activities such as development. In some parts of the UK SSSI’s are also protected from neglect as owners have legal obligations to look after them.2 

The specific legislation underpinning SSSI’s differs between countries but all offer similar levels of protection. They are;

  • Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) as amended (England and Wales)
  • Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 (Scotland)
  • Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands Order 1985 (Northern Ireland).  

How are they created?

Fundamentally, SSSI’s are selected because they contain the best examples of natural heritage in the UK but the actual process of designation involves;

  1. Cataloguing features of interest.
  2. Evaluation against a set of established criteria.

The ultimate responsibility for designating SSSI status then falls to the devolved nature conservation bodies;

  • Natural England
  • NatureScot 
  • Natural Resources Wales 
  • Northern Ireland Environment Agency. 

Why is it important to look after them?

SSSI’s are a cornerstone in British nature conservation, forming a national network of protected sites, often underpinning higher-level designations such as National Parks or Natura 2000 sites.  Given the scale of wildlife decline in the UK and the continued development of the countryside it is imperative to look after SSSI’s to ensure the continued survival of a wide range of the diverse habitats, species and landforms found in the UK.  

Many SSSI’s also deliver a variety of provisioning, regulating and cultural services to society, which are so valuable, that DEFRA has concluded that the benefits of achieving favourable condition in all SSSI’s far outweighs the investment cost.

By Chrissy Derrick – Organising member


1) Known as an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) in Northern Ireland
2) In England since 2000

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