280 nature sites to get EU protection

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The Government yesterday announced a list of 280 nature sites likely to receive a new level of legal protection.

The sites are mostly inland but a few stretch several miles out to sea. They are Britain's contribution to a European Union plan to guarantee the future of the continent's rarest and most endangered habitats and species - the jewels in Europe's nature conservation crown.

The northern England location of at least one of these sites is a secret - it harbours the only surviving Lady's Slipper orchid in Britain. The list of Special Areas for Conservation - SACs - also includes Britain's only inland salt-marsh, miles from the sea in Staffordshire.

The two ancient woodland pastures known to harbour Britain's sole colonies of the violet click beetle, at Bredon Hill in Hereford and Worcester, and Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, are also listed.

Wildlife and environmental pressure groups were pleased at the length and coverage of the list, but said there had been some important omissions.

Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds both said not enough of the significant relics of the ancient Caledonian pine forest, which once covered much of Scotland, were listed. Also left out were most dry lowland heath outside of its Dorset stronghold and large areas of raised peat bogs. Both are now extremely rare habitats.

The conservation groups also wanted the Government to include more damaged habitats on the SAC list, such as the wetlands of the Somerset Levels and those raised peat bogs which had been largely dug out. This would have marked a commitment to restore them.

The list covers an area of nearly 10,000 square kilometres - a little more than England's largest county, North Yorkshire. It embraces most of the officially designated National Nature Reserves and nearly half of the area covered by government-designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which already receive statutory protection.

The Government fired the starting gun yesterday for a six-week period of consultation on the SACs list. Environmentalists will be pressing for more sites to be added while some landowners are expected to argue that their acres should be struck off. By 5 June the Government has to submit a final version of the list to the European Commission.

Department of the Environment sources insisted yesterday that although the list had been approved by the Government as a whole, it was based only on wildlife protection priorities. But Tony Juniper, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, said he was surprised and suspicious that, out of many English SSSIs threatened by Department of Transport roadbuilding proposals, only one had been upgraded to an SAC.