Britain's natural heritage is saved. By whom? The EU

Hundreds of this country's most beautiful and important landscapes have won the protection of the European Court of Justice. Stephen Castle reports on the culmination of a 13-year political battle

From the cliffs of Cornwall to the Highlands of Scotland, taking in Wimbledon Common and Morecambe Bay along the way, 608 of Britain's most precious nature sites have won formal European protection.

The initiative grants new status to 1.5m hectares of British countryside, including urban parks, moors, bogs, salt meadows, rivers, woods, cliffs and caves. It guarantees protection for dolphins, seals, bats colonies and rare plants such as the white-flowered Snowdon lily.

For the first time, the nation's most treasured nature sites will have the force of the European Court of Justice behind their preservation. If the Government fails in its duty to look after them, it could be taken to the highest court in the EU.

The list, which runs to 13 pages, is a reminder of the incredible richness of Britain's landscape, from remarkable urban scenery to some of the most remote countryside in the UK.

The EU designation is the end of a 13-year battle that began with the 1992 habitats directive. Under the law, the UK agreed to recognise sites because of their habitats and the species living there.

The Government's original list of 200, submitted to the European Commission, was insufficient and, eventually, it came up with more than 600, which have been declared Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It will be a criminal offence to carry out damaging works such as road-building, tree clearance or pond drainage on these sites without the consent of English Natureor its equivalent in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under an initiative called Natura 2000, if the Government fails to protect the rare flora and fauna, complaints can be made which could be taken to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. France already looks likely to face action for breaching rules in one of its sites.

Andy Clements, English Nature's director of designated sites said: "The number and diversity of these places reflects the impressive range of rare wildlife and geology we have in England, from the smallest snails to towering cliff-faces, which is amazing considering our small size compared to other European countries. The acknowledgement and legal protection these sites receive helps to contribute to a rich natural vein which sustains our communities in a busy post-industrial world." EU officials say the measures do not necessarily prevent economic activity on protected land, but mean there has to be a plan to protect the environment and rare species. The initiative extends across 12 countries and includes more than 7,000 areas. The aim is to protect the best examples of plant and animal life across the continent - 197 animal species, 89 plant species and 205 habitats considered of scientific importance to Europe.

Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman in the European Parliament, said it was a landmark in EU nature conservation that would help ensure the survival of hundreds of unique species across Europe. "When it comes down to the question of whether to build a factory or conserve a site for newts, the factory often wins."

Epping Forest, Essex

Epping Forest is one of only a few remaining large-scale examples of ancient wood-pasture in lowland Britain. It retains habitats of high conservation value including ancient semi-natural woodland and old grassland plains. The semi-natural woodland is extensive, forming one of the largest coherent blocks in the country.

Epping Forest is an important site for fauna associated with decaying timber, and supports many scarce invertebrate species. Evidence of the stag beetle Lucanus cervus is widespread.

River Tweed, Scottish borders

The Tweed basin supports a great array of aquatic life, in particular an important population of salmon, Salmo salar. Made up of tidal rivers, estuaries, mud flats, sand flats and lagoons, the Tweed also supports a large number of otters.

Among other species are three types of lamprey, a primitive, jawless fish similar to the eel: Petromyzon marinus, the sea lamprey, the largest in the country; Lampetra planeri, the brook lamprey, Britain's smallest; and Lampetra fluviatilis, the river lamprey.

Cardigan Bay, Cardiganshire

This stretch of Welsh coastline is one of the few UK locations to boast large numbers of bottlenose dolphins. A five-year study in the early 1990s suggested that the population consisted of around 127 individuals.

Grey seals are also seen regularly, and often use the sea caves to give birth and raise their pups.

The sea caves on Cardigan Island are covered with large populations of encrusting algae, sponges, sea mats, anemones and tube worms.

Dartmoor, Devon

One of Britain's most famous areas of moorland, Dartmoor's 368 square miles of sheltered valleys and granite tors contain the southernmost blanket bog in Europe, as well as extensive wet and dry heathland. It also boasts three important areas of oak woodland, and was designated one of the National Parks of England and Wales in 1951.

Many of the bogs are dominated by purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea. There are also widespread peat cuttings, dug by hand in the 19th century, but which have revegetated, and many once again support a healthy cover of sphagnum mosses.

Part of Dartmoor supports a population of the southern damselfly, Coenagrion mercuriale. Other wildlife in the rivers and streams of Dartmoor include Atlantic salmon and otters.

The Dartmoor pony dates back to prehistoric times and today its grazing habits play an important part in the conservation of certain habitats.

Chilterns Beechwoods, SE England

The Chilterns Beechwoods form a natural mosaic of landscape made up of grassland, scrub, chalk hills and woodland. A distinctive wildflower is the rare coralroot Cardamine bulbifera, a member of the orchid family.

It is also the home of the stag beetle Lucanus cervus, the UK's largest terrestrial beetle, and among the most spectacular of the species, reaching 7 centimetres in length. Its larvae develop in decaying tree stumps and fallen timber. The grasslands support purple milk-vetch Astragalus danicus and dwarf sedge Carex humilis.

Lake District, Cumbria

Renowned for its beauty, the Lake District is also a conservationist's jewel with its blanket bogs and dry heaths. The area includes acidic rocks, mainly of the Borrowdale volcanic series and Skiddaw slates. The region was also selected for its oak woodland, distinctive vegetation on high-altitude siliceous slopes, alkaline fens and species-rich Nardus grasslands which support Atlantic, sub-Atlantic and arctic-alpine plants and invertebrates.

Moray Firth, NE Scotland

The Moray Firth is Scotland's largest firth, stretching from Duncansby Head in the north to Fraserburgh in the east, a total of 500 miles of coastline. It supports the only known resident population - thought to number around 130 - of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the North Sea.

Another distinctive feature of the firth is its sandbanks, which are covered slightly by sea water all the time, and host a variety of distinctive marine life.

Usk Valley, Monmouthshire

The Usk Valley area in south-east Wales contains one of the largest maternity roosts for the lesser horseshoe bat as well as a number of important hibernation caves in the area. No less than five per cent of UK population is said to be found here and this may be an underestimate. Roofs of barns, stables and rural houses are preferred summer roosts. Maternity colonies of 30 to 70 are normal, but they can form colonies as large as 200 bats. Their winter roosts are mostly caves or tunnels.