Prescott names 81 wildlife sites to get European protection

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The Independent Online

A big increase in the number of wildlife sites to come under tough new European Union protection was announced yesterday by the Environment Secretary, John Prescott.

A big increase in the number of wildlife sites to come under tough new European Union protection was announced yesterday by the Environment Secretary, John Prescott.

Eighty-one new sites in England, covering 300,000 hectares, have been added to the list of 495 UK areas already submitted to Brussels for protection under the EU's wildlife law, the Habitats Directive.

The new sites include such well-known wildlife havens as the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, the North Yorkshire Moors and Dawlish Warren in Devon, but they also include peat bogs in Yorkshire where peat is being commercially extracted, an activity which may now have to stop.

The sites are designated either for the value of the habitats they contain, such as yew woods or heathland, or for the rare species they harbour, such as the great crested newt or the marsh fritillary butterfly.

If the Brussels Commission agrees, the sites will become Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the directive, and will benefit from tougher protection than any under British domestic law, including that affecting national parks.

There is no consideration of the needs of tourism, or recreation, and the only criterion under which the ecological integrity of the sites could be breached, by road-building, for example, would be "overwhelming national interest". All the proposed SACs are already covered by Britain's own, less stringent, protection designation, as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Yesterday's announcement increases the English area covered by 50 per cent.

"This is a major step for England's wildlife," Mr Prescott said. "It is part of the UK's contribution to the European Union's extensive network of important nature conservation sites - known as Natura 2000 - all of which are prized for their rare and threatened habitat types and wildlife species."

The chairman of English Nature, Baroness Young of Old Scone said: "England now has 900,000 hectares of protection for internationally threatened plants and animals and fragile habitats, stretching from Northumberland to Cornwall."

Environmental pressure groups welcomed the move, but warned the Government against backsliding on its commitment to strengthen SSSI protection in the Countryside Bill at present going through Parliament. Tories in the Lords attacked it because of its provisions for the Right to Roam.

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