A new analysis of government data by the RSPB shows that moorland burning is the greatest identified threat to England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The analysis also shows that no reason has been identified for half of the English SSSIs that are in poor condition. These results were hidden in the data published by Natural England, which is based only on a small subset of the SSSIs that are in poor condition.
A new analysis of government data by the RSPB shows that the burning of moorland is the greatest identified threat to England’s premier wildlife sites known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
The other key finding of the analysis is that Natural England has not identified a reason for half of all English SSSIs that are in poor condition. This means that we do not know why 316,167 hectares of the SSSIs in England are in disrepair, an area roughly the size of Gloucestershire.
Without this information, it will be impossible for the government and Natural England to take the necessary action to achieve the goal of restoring 75% of SSSIs to good condition.
While burning is the largest known cause of SSSIs in poor condition, the analysis also identifies overgrazing and water pollution (particularly from agriculture) as important factors in the condition of these sites.
Short-eared Owl, Copyright Glyn Sellors, from the Surfbirds Galleries
Moorlands are burned to provide habitat for wood grouse to shoot and to make them more productive for grazing. This leads to permanent damage to highly sensitive bog habitats and the loss of threatened species. It also releases carbon into the atmosphere (which contributes to climate change), decreases the quality of drinking water (increases water bills), increases water runoff (which increases the risk of flooding), and contributes to air pollution.
Natural England publishes the reasons why SSSIs are in poor condition on its website. However, these data are incomplete and misleading. 61% of the SSSIs in England are in poor shape. The published data from Natural England only give the reasons for the poor health of 8% of SSSIs. Except for the reasons why 53% of the sites are in poor condition, as Natural England believes they are “recovering”.
Kate Jennings, RSPB’s website policy director, said, “Many of these websites that are restored will not be restored at all. Natural England put many SSSIs in this category a decade ago because it believed that entering into a plan or agreement with the landowner would automatically lead to the restoration of the site, regardless of whether the plan was funded, implemented, or effective has been proven.
“A decade later, the evidence clearly shows that this was a mistake. The small SSSI monitoring that Natural England has carried out over the past few years shows that “poor recovery locations” are being downgraded to “poor unchanged” or “poor declining” locations. This despite large amounts of public money being spent on agreements that would never lead to recovery, including some that allow the burning of moorland to continue, thus perpetuating damage to these precious places. “
SSSIs are the best remaining spots for England’s wildlife. Studies show that without SSSIs, our wildlife would have suffered much worse in the past 50 years. They only cover 6% of England, but if restored, these locations can boost nature’s recovery and add up to 30% of the land the government has pledged for nature.
In addition to protecting wildlife, protected areas offer society around £ 1 billion in benefits, nine times the public money spent on them. This includes improving water and air quality, reducing flood risk and storing carbon. They also give us all access to nature, which benefits our mental and physical health.
Natural England’s budget has been cut by around two-thirds over the past decade. As a result, SSSI surveillance spending fell from nearly £ 2m at the start of the decade to £ 700,000 in 2019, and more than 70% of SSSIs have not been monitored in the past 6 years.
Sums up Kate Jennings, “A bog bog would be a quick win in meeting the government’s goal of getting 75% of the SSSI back into favorable condition by 2042, and is also an essential step in addressing the climate crisis. This is a critical next step in protecting and restoring our internationally important highland peat areas. The government has repeatedly promised a ban, but has not yet done so. “
“It is also important that SSSIs are monitored regularly so we know what condition they are in, what is harming their wildlife and what action needs to be taken. Without this, it would be impossible to achieve the government’s goal. “
Case Study – Bowes Moor SSSI, Durham
Bowes Moor SSSI is an extensive area of moorland in southwest Durham. It has received international protection for its fragile bog habitats and the various bog bird communities, which include some of our rarest birds of prey – merlin and short-eared owl.
In a 2011 report, Natural England used Bowes Moor SSSI as an example of a site that was well on its way to being fully restored. Almost 10 years later, Natural England’s data shows his condition has worsened. Parts of the area were downgraded from “unfavorable recreation” to “unfavorable non-change” due to the moorland management. The reasons stated: “In the moister moor areas, damage to the vehicle access was evident, which related to the position of the sand stations and traps (for capercaillie). Burns have also occurred in the sensitive areas without burns, across a watercourse and on a raised bog where there is almost continuous coverage of sphagnum with frequent bog basins. “This has resulted in“ bare peat being exposed in some places, ”resulting in irreversible habitat damage and loss of carbon in the atmosphere.