Burning moorland to facilitate grouse shooting is the biggest threat to England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), of which around two thirds - encompassing an area the size of Gloucestershire - are in poor condition, the RSPB has warned.
The organisation has criticised Natural England – the agency advising the government on the natural environment – for failing to get to the bottom of why so many of the country’s protected landscapes are in such a bad state.
The sites are some of the country’s most important places for wildlife.
Around 6 per cent of land in England has SSSI designation, and according to ecologists, 61 per cent of these are in a poor condition.
Despite this, Natural England has offered no explanation for why this is the case for more than half of those sites, which it classed as “recovering”, the RSPB analysis said.
Heather is burnt on moorland as it stimulates the growth of green shoots, which grouse eat. However, the burning is devastating for biodiversity, killing various other plants and preventing the landscape from returning to woodland.
The process can increase surface water runoff, which leads to flooding, and drags nutrients out of the soil. In some areas heather grows over peat, which is a vital store of carbon, but can release huge amounts of the greenhouse gas if it dries out or catches alight.
Other major causes of environmental degradation in the SSSIs include overgrazing by livestock and water pollution – particularly from chemicals and fertilisers from agricultural run off.
The RSPB accused Natural England of producing data which was “incomplete and misleading”.
The RSPB’s analysis said: “Natural England’s published data only includes the reasons for the poor condition of 8 per cent of SSSIs. It excludes the reasons why 53 per cent of sites are in poor condition because Natural England considers that these are ‘recovering’.
The RSPB’s head of site policy, Kate Jennings said: “Many of these ‘recovering’ sites are not recovering at all. Natural England put many SSSIs into this category a decade ago because it assumed that entering into a plan or agreement with the landowner would automatically lead to the restoration of the site, without considering whether the plan was being funded, implemented or proving effective.
“A decade on, the evidence clearly shows that this was a mistake. The little SSSI monitoring that Natural England has carried out in recent years shows that ‘unfavourable recovering’ sites are being downgraded to ‘unfavourable no-change’ or ‘unfavourable declining’.
“This is despite large amounts of public money being spent on agreements which were never going to drive recovery, including some which allow moorland burning to continue and so perpetuate damage to these precious places.”
Natural England has seen its funding cut by 45 per cent since 2014, and last year was forced to set up a crowd funding campaign to plug the holes in its finances.
Over the same timeframe staff levels have also fallen from 2,500 to 1,900, according to trade union Prospect.
Last month, Natural England's chairman Tony Juniper wrote to MPs warning them it was unable to carry out the necessary monitoring of SSSIs due to funding cuts.
“We have reduced investment in the monitoring of our SSSI network meaning we do not have a current robust evidence base around the state of our SSSIs, their management needs etc,” he said.
Mr Juniper said the agency was also struggling to meet its responsibilities in the areas of land use planning, species recovery, wildlife licensing and national nature reserves.
The RSPB estimates 70 per cent of SSSIs have not been monitored for the last six years after Natural England's funding for the task was cut from £2m in 2011 to £700,000 last year.
The charity is now calling on the government to ban peatland burning as a “quick win” in achieving its conservation targets and helping fight climate change.
Ms Jennings said: "This is a critical next step in protecting and restoring our internationally important upland peatlands.
“The government has repeatedly promised a ban but has not yet done so.”
She added: “It is also essential that SSSIs are regularly monitored, so that we know what state they are in, what is causing damage to their wildlife and what actions need to be taken.
“Without this, achieving the government's target will be impossible.”
A spokesperson for Defra said: "We are committed to driving forward a green revolution as we build back better and greener from the pandemic.
“As part of this, we plan to improve the management of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest and to bring 75 per cent of the area into favourable condition.
“Natural England is working with landowners and managers and others to improve the condition of our protected sites as a core component of our Nature Recovery Network.”
Last week, a 16-tonne bulldozer was used to illegally straighten a mile-long stretch of river in an SSSI in Herefordshire - stripping it of trees and destroying swathes of rare habitat.
Local charity the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust (HWT) described the damage caused to the River Lugg as a “crime against the environment”, and said the perpetrators would have been “well aware” of the area's status.
The incident is being investigated by both the Environment Agency and West Mercia Police.
The Independent has contacted Defra for comment.
Additional reporting by PA.
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