One-third of wildlife sites 'neglected'

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The Independent Online

Nearly a third of England's top wildlife sites are suffering continuing damage and neglect, English Nature said yesterday. By far the biggest cause of damage to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) is agriculture, which is responsible for 92 per cent of the 8,300 acres of SSSI land actively damaged in 1998/99.

Nearly a third of England's top wildlife sites are suffering continuing damage and neglect, English Nature said yesterday. By far the biggest cause of damage to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) is agriculture, which is responsible for 92 per cent of the 8,300 acres of SSSI land actively damaged in 1998/99.

But the main reason for the "unfavourable" condition of wildlife sites is not deliberate damage but years of neglect, or "inappropriate" management, that is causing on-going loss of species and declines in wildlife quality.

The findings, published in the environmental watchdog's annual report, will put pressure on ministers to announce stricter laws to protect nature sites in the next parliamentary session.

"What has emerged is that 28 per cent of the natural features of our SSSIs are in poor condition and either getting worse or not getting any better," said Rob Cooke, manager of English Nature's SSSI project. "Indications are that about a third of England's SSSI area of just over two and half million acres comes into that category - or about 750,000 acres."

In lowland England the major cause of decline is neglect; for example, failing to put livestock on herb-rich meadows and allowing scrub and coarse grasses to grow up.

In the uplands the main problem is overgrazing by sheep, encouraged by headage subsidies under the EU's Common Agriculture Policy. Under existing wildlife laws, English Nature may negotiate with farmers to manage their SSSIs well but cannot compel them to do so.

The single biggest damaged area is Whernside, in North Yorkshire, a 9,500-acre mix of bog and heathland, over half of which has been devastated by overgrazing. English Nature believes that it could be restored under sympathetic management. The only site to be entirely destroyed is Horse Field, a five-acre ancient grassland in Gilling, North Yorkshire.

"We badly need new legal powers," says Mr Cooke. "As a last resort, if we cannot agree a suitable regime with an owner or occupier, we need to be able to impose management orders to make them look after their land. Or it would be extremely helpful if we could manage at-risk SSSIs ourselves and charge any costs to the owner."

The Government is under strong pressure from MPs to include tough wildlife legislation in its legislative programme. Nearly 350 MPs have signed an early-day motion demanding new laws to protect SSSIs.

English Nature and the Environment Agency have also launched a report on damage to SSSIs from water-pumping. It shows that 26 wetland, river and lake SSSIs are drying out, while another 171 sites are awaiting investigation.

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