From ancient woodlands to wild coastlines, the UK isn't short of natural beauty - but many of these precious sites are under threat.

Half of inspections at protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) have found poor conditions, while some have found environmentally important features destroyed, we can exclusively reveal.

Wildlife charities have described the situation as a "nature emergency" and called for urgent action.

Governments across the UK have insisted they are taking steps to restore and protect SSSIs.

Favourable condition
50.1 %
Unfavourable condition
49.5 %
0.4 %
Analysis of more than 26,000 official inspections at SSSIs - some of which have never before been published - show poor conditions are widespread.

Kate Jennings, head of site conservation policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), added: “The current state of SSSIs across the four countries of the UK is shocking. Many have not been assessed for years so the actual picture may in fact be worse.

We need a huge step-change in action, and it needs to happen now
Kate Jennings, RSPB

“If our governments are serious about tackling the climate and nature emergencies we need a huge step-change in action, and it needs to happen now.”

Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said it was “shocking that our top wildlife sites are in such poor condition”.

He said: “If we can’t even protect the jewels in the crown, it’s little wonder that UK nature is in such poor shape. The new government must make the protection and restoration of our natural environment a top priority.”

Nikki Williams, The Wildlife Trust’s director of campaigns and policy, said bodies such as Natural England, which monitor the condition of sites, had been starved of funding.

She called for them to get a substantial cash injection “to enable them to carry out their functions effectively and to ensure our protected sites are restored and enhanced”.

Nature under threat
Shetland Islands: Sumburgh Head
A colony of puffins on the Shetland Islands’ Sumburgh Head has been assessed as being in an unsatisfactory and declining state, with the situation blamed on climate change.
Cornwall: Bodmin Moor
All protected sections of Cornwall's famous Bodmin Moor have been assessed as being in an unfavourable condition.
Northern Ireland: Murlough
This coastal complex is internationally important for wintering wildfowl and waders as well as being a site for common and grey seals, but the majority of coastal sand dunes were found to be in an unfavourable condition.

The UK's thousands of SSSIs are chosen because they are home to rare plant or animal species or important geographical features.

They are designated by four conservation bodies: Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales.

The JPIMedia Data Unit analysed more than 26,000 condition assessments - some of which had never before been published.

In some regions, two-thirds of inspections found unfavourable conditions at SSSI sites, the analysis shows.

And many sites have gone unassessed for years, leading environmental campaigners to fear that the situation could be even worse.

The North York Moors had a mix of 'favourable' and 'unfavourable' assessments. Photo: Shutterstock.

'A massive financial penalty'

There are around 6,000 SSSIs across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where they are known as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs).

One of these can be found in the picturesque Sperrin Mountains, the longest mountain range in Northern Ireland.

The Carn/Glenshane Pass ASSI is home to one of the last areas of extensive intact blanket bog in the region.

It covers 1,650 hectares and has about 30 landowners and farmers managing and using the land.

But for 56-year-old livestock farmer, Nigel McLaughlin, working on a protected site comes with its battles.

“The main difficulties are the threat of fire [wildfires] and the bureaucratic process if you want to do anything on those areas, such as repairing fences, doing controlled burns of excess heather growths or scrub encroachment of wild conifers," Nigel said.

Photo: Shutterstock. A view across the Carn Glenshane Pass peatland in the Sperrin Mountains, Northern Ireland.

Destocking farmland is also a mandatory requirement for ASSI heather moorland, he said.

This has to be done from November 1 to March 1 and results in farmers having to find and fund alternative grazing for the animals.

“That is a massive financial penalty on us,” Nigel said.

Carn/Glenshane Pass ASSI was last assessed as unfavourable in 2015 and is currently being reviewed but Nigel said he doesn’t believe the assessments are a fair reflection of the overall condition of the land.

Just one tiny bit of it could be unfavourable and then your whole report is unfavourable.
Nigel McLaughlin, livestock farmer

“For a site to be reviewed as unfavourable, all that takes is for one small part of it to be unfavourable, say for example an accidental fire,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be the whole thing, just one tiny bit of it could be unfavourable and then your whole report is unfavourable.”

He added: “We’ve been looking to get the NIEA [Northern Ireland Environment Agency] to engage with the farmers as well and farming unions to highlight findings and discuss concerns.”

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said it is working with landowners to develop new conservation management plans for each ASSI, including Carn/Glenshane Pass. These will be ready by 2021, a spokesperson said.

The White Cliffs of Dover, where inspections of environmental conditions found a mixed picture. Photo: Shutterstock.

Across the UK

In England, SSSIs are inspected in smaller sections called units and more than half of these units (53%) are in an unfavourable condition, inspection data shows.

The picture is worst in the East Midlands and the North East, where two-thirds of inspected areas are rated unfavourable.

Guidelines state SSSI features in England should be assessed at least every six years, but analysis found more than half (12,394) of SSSI units have not been assessed since 2011.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said while most of England’s SSSIs were either in a favourable condition or were recovering, they recognised that “more needs to be done to improve these vital sites”.

More needs to be done to improve these vital sites
DEFRA spokesperson

“That’s why we are focusing on restoring those sites that are still in a recovering condition so we can enhance these important areas,” the spokesperson said.

In Northern Ireland, assessors look at each ASSI's features of interest separately. More than a third (39%) of these features were last assessed as being in an unfavourable condition, previously unpublished data shows.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said it is “working to establish conservation programmes for our ASSIs and other protected sites”.

The picture is marginally better in Scotland with 32% of the country’s 3,684 assessed features being in an unfavourable condition.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) said many of these features were either recovering or were projected to recover. It said it had recently announced an extra £2 million of Scottish Government funding to boost biodiversity.

Natural Resources Wales does not have a comprehensive SSSI monitoring programme and was unable to provide data for analysis.

For the full data, click here.

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