Labels, Labels Everywhere

It’s the British way of protecting places, and it’s confusing. Huge areas of the country are green on the map but the designations vary in value for wildlife. To complicate things further, they frequently overlap – but given there’s currently talk of increasing the protected areas, here’s a guide. 

Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

AONBs are an acknowledgement that a landscape is special: rich in history and character. I live on the border of the Surrey Hills, one of the oldest AONBs; they quietly protect much of the countryside, from the Yorkshire Wolds to the North Norfolk Coast.

AONBs offer protection against development and save our rural heritage, so are invaluable, but there is no duty on landowners to do anything for wildlife. While some AONB land supports many rare species, other areas are intensively farmed or used for pheasant shooting. I would like to see AONB status come with a basic duty of care for the environment.

Cotswolds AONB

National Park

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

Very different to the North American meaning; English national parks are basically AONBs with their own planning authority and notably more access for outdoor recreation. They sprawl across the uplands and occasionally elsewhere, conserving some of our most spectacular landscapes. 

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: usually private.

These are the ones that really matter for wildlife. They cover 7% of England and range from abandoned railway tunnels to vast moorlands and estuaries. All of them come with lists of ‘notified features’: the special wildlife, geology or habitats which triggered the notification. Depending on the SSSI, this can be anything from nightingales to red squirrels or chalk cliffs. 

They are bewilderingly varied, like the wildlife and geology they protect, but this is one of the strangest (and smallest) of all: Orielton Stable Block and Cellars SSSI in Pembrokeshire. Yes, we have a SSSI that is indoors. It was designated to protected lesser horseshoe bats!

Babylon Hill SSSI (Dorset) – notified for Jurassic geology

Babylon Hill

Thursley, Hankley & Frensham Commons SSSI (Surrey) – heathland habitat and species

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

National Nature Reserve (NNR)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: public, or public-private partnership

Our ‘real’ national parks, NNRs are the high point of British nature conservation. They are often underpinned by SSSI status and almost always provide public access and good scientific research opportunities. 

Hickling Broad NNR, Norfolk

Hickling Broad

Special Area of Conservation / Special Protection Area

Focus: landscape-scale conservation. Ownership: various

SACs and SPAs are often called European sites, but actually derive from the Bern Convention. Together with Ramsar sites, SACs and SPAs are designed to protect habitats and species of international importance. Nobody can undertake a project in one of these sites without first proving that it will have no likely significant effect on the environment. For good measure, all British examples are also SSSIs.

Woolmer Forest SAC / Wealden Heaths Phase II SPA

Woolmer1 6 Sept 2018

Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM)

Focus: historic landmarks. Ownership: various

Finally, there is the human factor. People have been living and working in Britain for many millennia, and every generation has left thought-provoking traces in its wake. A SAM is to human work what SSSIs are to wildlife.

Belas Knap SAM – a 5,000 year old Neolithic longbarrow.

Belas Knap1

12 thoughts on “Labels, Labels Everywhere

    1. It would be mostly sonar navigation, but they also have social calls. Their squeaks are barely audible to us but someone else here had a bat detector, an instrument which converts them into a frequency we can hear.

      Bats have a very high level of protection in the UK, but it’s great that this particular roost is also a SSSI. I forget how many were in there but it was a lot!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Beautiful photos, Adele, and glad there are so many designated and protected places. Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) has teamed with to get homeowners to plant more native plants to support wildlife. We need to convert half our lawns into wildlife habitat – our parks and conserved land is no longer enough. Time is critical!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that idea. Gardens and yards are hugely important for wildlife.

      Where we are really struggling in the UK is with agriculture, and given it covers three quarters of the country, that is a huge concern. Many places that look superficially green have actually had most of their wildlife stripped out by modern farming. There’s currently legislation going through parliament for the post-EU farming scene so we’ll have to see where that takes us.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would love to see wild strips lining every ag field. Some farmers are beginning to get the big picture, but most resist change (so human 😉 ). Hopefully, it is not too late for many species.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The frustrating thing here is that the government will pay for wild strips and many other measures under what is called Countryside Stewardship, and still many farmers resist it! I think they should be made mandatory (with financial support of course). We cannot go on like this.


    1. I cannot help but think that there has to be a simpler way (perhaps one single classification with different categories) but, well, it is what is. Sadly, despite all these labels, huge areas of the countryside are still unprotected and wildlife and our historical heritage needs far more help.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, and while much rural activity is compatible with conservation if done with care, that care is not commonplace. We are also increasingly having a problem with land being bought up by people who with very little knowledge of the countryside and nature. Through mismanagement, they end up doing huge damage to wildlife, usually accidentally but it’s damage all the same.

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