Nature Site Designations

In this section you will find information about the the most commonly encountered wildlife, ecology and geology site designations, their legal status (where applicable) and who is responsible for managing them. In the table that follows:


Designation basis

Meaning and significance

Statutory Authority

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in UK; Area Of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) in Northern Ireland

UK Legislation Designated under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and covering any land which is of special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features. SSSIs can be owned by anyone, but the conservation agencies must be consulted before carrying out any activities that are included on a list of those with the potential to cause damage. Most higher designations are usually imposed on land already designated as SSSI. NE, NRW, SNH, DoENI
National Nature Reserve (NNR) UK countries NNRs are areas of land deemed to be among the best examples of a particular habitat.many NNRs are owned and managed by the statutory authorities and have strict protection against potentially damaging operations and generally a presumption against development on and around it. NNR is the highest level of conservation protection provided by UK legislation alone. All or at least part of most NNRs are open to the public. NE, NRW, SNH, DoENI
Marine Nature Reserve (MNR) UK Countries MNR is a UK designation under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, providing status and protection similar to that of a National Nature Reserve (NNR), but in a marine environment. The aim of NNRs is to conserve marine flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest while also providing opportunities for study of marine ecosystems. MNRs within 3 nautical miles of the coast may be established under the Territorial Seas Act 1987 or, by an Order in Council, out to the limits of UK territorial waters. MNR protection is generally by means of byelaws. NE, NRW, SNH, DoENI
Local Nature Reserve (LNR) UK Local Authorities LNR designations are made by Local Authorities under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and are on land owned or controlled by the Local Authority. Many NNRs have SSSI status, but this is not an essential requirement. Often the management of an NNR will be by the Local Authority in partnership with a national conservation agency such as NRW or EN, or with a wildlife trust or other non-governmental body. LNRs usually have good public access. Local Authority, with agreement of NRW, EN, SNH or DoEI
National Parks UK National Parks are areas designated because of their outstanding value in terms of natural beauty, ecological, archaeological, geological and other features, and their recreational value. Most National Parks date back to the 1950s and 1960s, but the South Downs and the New Forest are examples of recent designations. The Parks are of high tourism value and are subject to extra planning controls; however, in general the land is not in public ownership and only some parts of a national Park will have public access. National Parks Authorities
Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) UK AONBs are designated for their exceptionally fine landscape and scenic beauty, and they do not necessarily have to be of high conservation value (although many are). The designations are made by NRW in wales, SNH in Scotland and EN in England, and the relevant Local Authorities usually appoint an AONB officer to oversee planning and management restrictions that help protect the AONB. In many AONBs there is no statutory management body
Biosphere Reserve UN Designated by UNESCO under the Man and the Biosphere Programme, these are areas of terrestrial and coastal/marine ecosystems, where by sensitive zoning and and management of potentially conflicting/damaging activities the conservation of ecosystems and their biodiversity can be achieved at the same time as these natural resources are used for the benefit of local communities. In the UK all Biosphere Reserves are also SSSIs and, in part at least, NNRs.  
World Heritage Site Worldwide Designated by UNESCO because of their cultural/historic significance, sites such as Stonehenge and the Giant's causeway generally also have substantial geological and/or nature conservation significance.  
Regionally Important Geological Site (RIGS) Local RIGS are locally defined using criteria agreed at a local level. They are places other SSSIs that are considered important for their geology and geomorphology The educational value of a site, its historical significance, and the aesthetic value of the landscape for promoting public appreciation of the Earth Sciences are generally key factors in such designation decisions. RIGS Groups within a Local Authority area
Special Area for Conservation (SAC) Europe Under the EU Habitats Directive (Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora), 1992, together with SPAs, SACs form a network of Natura 2000 protected sites across the EU, and they are afforded the highest possible planning control protection. SACs are usually based on SSSIs, often covering several related sites. Not all SACs are on land; in fact SACs can extend beyond the low tide mark some are entirely or mainly marine. NE, NRW, SNH, DoENI
Special Protection Area (SPA) Europe Designated under the EC Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds, 1979, SPAs are a response to obligations to protect threatened bird species and the habitats of migratory birds by taking the necessary measures to ...preserve, maintain and re-establish a sufficient diversity and areas of habitat for all species of naturally occurring birds in the wild state. The Directive lists bird species requiring special conservation action including selecting areas most suitable for them to be designated Special Protection Areas (SPAs); it also lists those bird species for which hunting, sale and other activities are allowed, so that for those not listing these activities are illegal. SPAs along with SACs form a network of protected sites across the EU that are known as the Natura 2000 network. NE, NRW, SNH, DoENI
Ramsar Site Worldwide Ramsar Sites are Wetlands of International Importance, and are the result of a convention signed in the city of Ramsar, in Iran, in 1971. More than 100 countries have now signed up to the agreement. Ramsar sites have a high level of legal protection, and development there will be permitted only in the most extreme circumstances and then only if compensatory wetland interest is restored or created elsewhere. Their status is thus similar to that accorded to the Natura 2000 network of protected sites. NE, NRW, SNH, DoENI

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