The results of the studies by English Nature have prompted the organisation to call for tough new rules to limit sulphur emissions from power stations - one of the main causes of acid rain.
The researchers selected 56 Sites of Special Scientific Interest as being at risk of acidification. They found that 46 of these had been damaged - many, including parts of the north Pennines, streams in Cumbria and on North Dartmoor and woodland pools in the New Forest had been very seriously affected.
Acid rain is formed when sulphur and nitrogen oxides in emissions from power stations, cars, domestic boilers and some natural sources such as volcanoes, are picked up by water in clouds and deposited as sulphuric and nitric acid in rain, mist and snow.
Freshwaters which are naturally slightly acidic cannot buffer this, so acidity can rise to levels beyond those which local plants and animals can tolerate. Acid rain also helps precipitate out aluminium normally held fast in soil. This can kill fish, invertebrates and plants.
Conifers, such as those planted across large patches of Scotland, are also known to be efficient at scavenging out pollution in the air. In areas where acid deposition is high, planting conifers can, therefore, make matters worse.
The English Nature report said it found the worst-hit regions included the Lake District, the Pennines, the far South-west and 'surprisingly, high ground in south England'.
Environmental campaigners are not surprised at the findings. They say that the Government has known for some time the extent of the problem, but is only now beginning to acknowledge how serious it is.
Dr Andrew Farmer, atmospheric pollution specialist at English Nature, said Britain was unique in that 'the majority of our acid rain we produce ourselves'.
He said his main target for helping to combat acid rain was, therefore, the Government. The reports point out that many of the sites studied will still be at risk even after current European legislation aimed at cutting emissions from power plants comes into force.
Dr Farmer is urging the Department of the Environment to publish data it holds that shows how wildlife might be helped by reducing emissions further. English Nature also wants Britain to agree to tougher emissions limits in negotiations in Europe on protection for wildlife due to start next year.
Tessa Robertson, pollution and energy officer at the World Wide Fund for Nature, said if the Government had insisted that 'gas scrubbers' be fitted to power plants when environmentalists first raised the alarm over acid rain, Britain could have cut its sulphur emissions to 90 per cent of today's levels by now.
As things stand, Britain is committed only to reduce its emissions to 60 per cent of 1980 levels by 2003.
Freshwater Acidification of SSSIs in Great Britain; Department EN11, publicity and marketing branch, English Nature, Northminster House, Peterborough, PE1 1UA; pounds 6 and pounds 12.
(Graphic omitted)Reuse content