Wildlife sites to be made inviolate to be `super reserves'

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The Independent Online
A NEW form of European super-protection is on the way for some of Britain's loveliest and wildest landscapes, often because of the tiny examples of wildlife they contain.

Windsor Great Park and Windsor Forest, the Royal Family's leafy Berkshire backyard, will be offered this new safekeeping largely because of a small bug that dwells in the bark of the local ancient oak trees, the violet click beetle.

The New Forest in Hampshire, a magnet for millions of tourists, campers and walkers, is to be granted similar protection partly because another insect, the stag beetle, makes its home in the area's rotting timber.

And the majestic coastline surrounding Tintagel, the Cornish castle that in legend was the birthplace of King Arthur, is to be guaranteed extra preservation because of the plants and small flowers that bloom in the crevices of its cliffs.

All these sites are part of a network being established under the European Union's tough new wildlife law, the Habitats Directive, which so far is virtually unheard of by the general public in the United Kingdom.

But it is a law with real bite, and will offer the areas it covers near- absolute protection, making them safer from damaging development than even the National Parks. "Overwhelming national interest" will be the only criterion for allowing their ecological integrity to be breached, by, for example, road building.

In the past, environmental safeguards have often been easily overturned. Twyford Down, near Winchester in Hampshire, the unspoilt hillside where Britain's road protest movement began in 1992, was bisected by the M3 in spite of five separate protection designations - it was doubly a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), doubly a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM) and part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). But a new set of initials, SAC - the Habitats Directive's Special Area of Conservation - is about to make a repeat of Twyford Down very much less likely.

"This will be a new level of protection, indeed the toughest available in Britain for a wildlife site," a government source said.

The directive was largely conceived by an Englishman, Stanley Johnson, a former Tory MEP who in the late Eighties was a senior official in the environmental part of the European Commission in Brussels. Now an environmental consultant and novelist, he said yesterday: "I thought that Europe was more than just a market, and that if Italy lost its last wolves, say, or Spain its bears, all of us in Europe would be the poorer."

Today the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, is submitting to Brussels for confirmation the final list of sites chosen to be SACs in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are 340 of them, totalling nearly 1.7 million hectares, an area more than three times the size of Norfolk.

They range from small quarries and ponds, home to rare flowers such as the early gentian and amphibians like the great crested newt, to vast areas such as Dartmoor, the Cairngorms, Salisbury Plain, and largest of all at more than 100,000 hectares, the Wash on England's East Coast. They have been selected because they represent or contain one of 75 habitats, from limestone pavement to lowland hay meadows, or 38 species, from Bechstein's bat to the bottlenose dolphin, thought to need special protection across Europe.

Dartmoor has been chosen for two habitats, wet heath and blanket bog; the Cairngorms because the hills contain ancient Caledonian pine forest; and Salisbury Plain because it is the largest area of chalk grassland left in the European Union, and is home to the marsh fritillary butterfly. The Wash has been selected for its range of saltmarsh and mudflat habitats and its common seals.

The directive makes conserving species and habitats its unique focus; there is no consideration of the needs of tourism, or recreation, or anything or anyone else, up to and including the Duke of Edinburgh, Warden of Windsor Great Park. In 1995 the Duke had 63 of the park's ancient oak trees cut down in an attempt to improve the look of its landscape, reportedly infuriating Prince Charles. When the park becomes a Habitats Directive SAC, he will not be able to repeat the operation.

Lovers of Windsor and its surroundings may live to thank the violet click beetle yet.


Windsor Forest and Great Park

846 hectares

Historic parkland adjoining Sovereign's residence, crossed by the Queen in carriage drive to Royal Ascot. Prince Charles plays polo at Smith's Lawn

Dry oak dominated woodland; the violet click beetle. Click beetles (or skipjacks) live in the bark of trees and can throw themselves into the air when lying on their backs

Tintagel, Marsland and Clovelly Coast

2,429 hectares

Rugged coastline featuring the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, Tintagel Castle, towering above the sea and partially dating back to the 6th century AD

Vegetated sea cliffs, a habitat type only found on the Atlantic and Baltic coasts, that contain many uncommon plants including the lovely pale blue flower, spring squill

The New Forest

29,262 hectares

England's most famous forest, which began as William The Conqueror's hunting preserve and is now one of the south's biggest tourist honeypots

A range of eight threatened habitats, from dry heaths to bog woodland, and two insects: the southern damselfly and the stag beetle. The forest is one of the stag beetle's strongholds

Ben Nevis

9,317 hectares

Britain's tallest mountain (4,406ft) with Fort William at its foot, a magnet for thousands of tourists in the summer and for climbers in winter

Plants in crevices; acidic scree; alpine limestone grasslands. The mountain hosts a mosaic of unusual upland habitats and plants, such as moss campion and mossy saxifrage

Lundy Island

3,382 hectares

Granite island in Bristol Channel between England and Wales, once a target for Vikings and haunt of pirates, now a holiday destination

Reefs. Lundy's puffins and other wildlife are well-known, but its Euro-importance is in its underwater reefs which harbour many rare marine species, including several types of coral