The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department consultation paper on People and Nature: A New Approach to SSSI Designations in Scotland. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with direct experience of conservation and development issues.

A review of SSSI designation and management is laudable and can be seen as part of a reassessment of protected areas, given the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Rio Conference and the EU Habitat & Species Directive. The omission of marine SSSIs is, however, a matter of concern as Scotland is particularly rich in potential areas suitable for SSSI designation. The lack of a legislative framework for conservation in the marine and inshore environment is recognised. It is suggested that action on marine sites is long overdue. The statement therefore "that the devolved Scottish administration might wish in due course to review the purpose and effectiveness of protected area mechanisms in the marine environment" does not reflect the urgency of the situation.

The consultation paper also fails to refer to geological and geomorphological sites which are designated as SSSI, despite Scotland having a rich legacy of such sites. This omission needs immediate attention given the international significance of many geological and geomorphological sites in Scotland.

The statement that "Government is committed to strengthening wildlife in Scotland… which with its other elements of the natural heritage is one of Scotland’s greatest assets" is to be welcomed. In this context SSSIs continue to play a key role and any changes should strengthen site safeguards, as there is general agreement that there are weaknesses in the protection mechanisms currently operating for SSSIs. It is also agreed that the present system of paying compensation for refraining from damaging operations should be phased out and substituted with incentives for management agreements to promote site conservation, taking account of the rights of owners. The aim of reaching a situation in which the SSSI designation is regarded among landowners and the public as an accolade, rather than a constraint, is highly desirable.

While the designation of SSSIs should make a positive contribution to sustainable rural development as far as possible, and help to generate economic benefit, it is important to make it clear that this is not their prime purpose and that there will always be some instances where habitat and species protection must take precedence over economic development. Nevertheless, the move towards greater recognition of the potential economic benefits to be gained from intelligent use of areas designated for conservation is welcome, as is the integration of social, economic and environmental objectives, where ever possible.

The decline in habitats in the wider countryside is recognised and is a matter of concern. Though SSSI designation per se does not specifically address this, SSSIs provide a series of sits crucial importance in maintaining a wide range of habitats. Preventing damage to SSSIs, by adequate safeguards and conservation management, is therefore essential in maintaining and over time upgrading habitats in Scotland.

It is also important to realise that the species composition of SSSIs may change over decades as a result of, for example, changes in climate, CO2 concentrations, nitrogen deposition and water balance. Thought should be given as to how such change might be addressed, and efficient monitoring should be undertaken on all sites regarded as susceptible to change.

In terms of selection of SSSIs, the Nature Conservation Review (NCR) provides scientific criteria for selection of the majority of SSSIs and continues to be a sound and objective basis on which to designate SSSIs. Taken together, SSSIs provide an important series which should be maintained. Current areas of search for future SSSIs have been based on administrative areas. Continuing with these areas provides continuity, and further consideration should be given before changing to new search areas, such as Natural Heritage Zones.

The specific issues identified in the consultation document are addressed below:

Proposal 1

(a) Views are invited on introducing a new name for SSSIs (para 45)
The term SSSI is well known and understood in many circles and has been in use for 50 years. The Society is against change for change’s sake, and believes the name SSSI should be retained.

(b) Is there still a need for SSSIs other than those which underpin Natura 2000 sites? (para 45)
There will be sites in Scotland which are important to conservation and biodiversity nationally, but not necessarily in a European context. It is essential to conserve sites of national interest, for example, those which demonstrate survival at ecological limits which could be valuable in assessing climate, pollution and evolutionary trends. The Scottish Office should investigate how other EU countries are dealing with sites of national interest.

(c) Should all SSSIs be of national importance? (para 45)
The existing series of SSSIs should be retained, based on the hierarchy of sites of World, European Union, GB, Scottish and Regional significance. The proposal that other SSSI sites should be de-designated fails to recognise the work of the SNH and its predecessor NCC over several decades, and would be seen by European conservationists as a step backwards and an abdication of Government’s responsibility. The argument for this case is:

  1. SSSIs acts as sources for dispersal of species to the rest of the landscape, which is essentially a "sink". Studies show that reducing the strength of source’s relative to sinks will reduce the biodiversity of the landscape as a whole.
  2. A large number of SSSIs in the landscape increases the conductivity of the landscape to the flow of species.The view that local authorities could look after sites which might cease to be designated as SSSIs is questioned. Most local authorities have neither the technical competence nor the financial resources; and their stewardship is unlikely to be consistent from region to region.

Proposal 2

(a) SNH should, through the JNCC, review the SSSI selection guidelines and their application to produce a series of nationally important sites (para 45)

The Society believes there should not be a review, as re-designation would be time consuming and, with some earlier exceptions, all SSSIs have already been based on recognised NCR criteria and judged on national importance in a UK context.

(b) and sites judged not of national (Scottish) importance should not be designated as SSSIs (para 45)

The Society does not believe there should be a review, and therefore while there may be a need for individual revocations due to changed circumstances, the existing series should be retained.

Proposal 3

If some or all of the special interest of a nationally important SSSI are damaged or destroyed, SNH should be required by statute to advise the Secretary of State of measures considered necessary to maintain the integrity of the series (para 45)

This proposal is welcomed.

Proposal 4

Legislation should be introduced to provide SNH with power to denotify SSSIs which are no longer judged to meet the relevant criteria (para 45)

Such powers should be available but used carefully and not simply for reducing the existing series. SSSI boundaries have often been modified in order to make them easily identifiable.

Proposal 5

The procedure for amending existing SSSI boundaries should be simplified (para 45)

The proposal is agreed.

Proposal 6

We invite views on the case for clarifying and strengthening the role of local designations (para 45)

The proposal for clarifying and strengthening the role of local designations is to be welcomed, and there is a need to ensure all local authorities take their responsibilities seriously in this regard. This could be achieved by ensuring a wider use of the Local Nature Reserve designation and through the proposed Planning Guidelines. Local designation would not, however, be a suitable alternative to SSSI designation.

Proposal 7

Opinions are sought on whether all terrestrial Natura areas should be underpinned by SSSI designation (para 45)

SSSIs should underpin all Natura 2000 and SPAs. Current inconsistencies in the designation of SSSIs and Natura 2000 sites should be removed, and the scope of SSSIs should be extended to cover marine sites.

Proposal 8
We suggest that the SSSI Selection Guidelines should make clear that an area of land qualifies for SSSI selection if the land is an integral part of a Natura 2000 site (para 45)

The proposal is welcomed.

Proposal 9

Local community representatives should be involved at the time of consultation on notification, particularly for larger sites in multiple ownership or occupancy (para 53)

Involvement of local people is welcomed in developing a better understanding of the rationale for designation, and contributing to the promotion of the sense of participatory democracy. However, it needs to be handled with care; the scientific importance of a site is what matters ultimately, and its value to the national or international community, and it is essential that this should not be over-ridden. It is sometimes the case that local interests or concerns refuse to appreciate this and in such cases their demands may have to be over-ridden, even if they are democratically expressed and supported. However, every effort should be made to avoid such situations.

Proposal 10

(a) SNH should approach local authorities in confidence to discuss the best method of conducting SSSI consultation (para 54)

The proposal is welcomed.

Proposal 11

Notification should be accompanied by clear plain English statements of why the land is of special nature conservation interest, what SNH’s objectives are, what management practices or changes of use would enhance and damage the special interest and the consequences of loss or damage to the special interest (para 56)

The Society welcomes a clear setting out of the process of identification of SSSIs and the justification for their designation. While there is a natural and proper tendency for those working in specialised fields to take much for granted, it is important that their shared enthusiasm does not divorce them from the understanding and concern of non-specialists and the general public. For policy to be effective it has to be communicated and understood, and this requires clarity of expression and justification. It should also be noted that there might be situations where positive management may require non-intervention and this should be recognised.

Proposal 12

(a) In formulating PDO lists for new sites, SNH should focus tightly on operations which would be likely to cause significant change (para 57)

The proposal is welcome as it is important to identify the matters over which consultations would be required rather than trying to tie down too much detail.

Proposal 13

SNH will be asked to trial new approaches to SSSI notification, particularly for sites in multiple ownership or occupancy (para 58)

This proposal is in danger of leading to further fragmentation of the parts of the protective process when the overall aim is to simplify. SNH has rarely, if ever, enacted SSSI notification without allowing ample time for informal discussions and there is often concern that too much time is taken, during which the site is vulnerable to damage. The proposed notification of a SSSI without a PDO list and without a binding agreement seems unduly complex, and would not be consistent with a "Protected Area".

Paragraph 65 (NB not a proposal, but a question in the text)

The Government would welcome comments on the aim for integration of nature conservation with other interests in a balanced way

Sensible flexibility in the management of SSSIs is acceptable but nature conservation interests must have priority. The argument that large SSSIs may have greater flexibility than small areas may not be well founded, for example in large wetland bog sites, where the whole system is important.

Proposal 14

The practice of paying compensation will stop and be replaced with stronger incentives to manage SSSIs in accordance with SNH’s objectives (para 69)

The proposed withdrawal of compensatory payments is welcomed. This will prevent any possible misdirection of available resources or diversion of scarce funds from other essential conservation tasks. Accordingly, payment to support positive management is endorsed.

Proposal 15

If compensation payments are retained, the Government would propose not normally to allow the loss of any grant or subsidy to be taken into account in assessing compensation (para 70)

The Society does not advocate the retention of the practice of paying compensation. However, if this should continue to be paid, the Society accepts the proposal.

Proposal 16

In exceptional circumstances it may be appropriate for fair compensation to be paid, determined if necessary by arbitration (para 71)

The Society is not against the proposal in principle. However, if appropriate examples exist it is unclear what these could be and why the examples of sand extraction and grazing are supplied as exceptions. Sand extraction is already covered by planning regulations and presumably would not be granted on an SSSI. Grazing could be covered by a management agreement.

Proposal 17

A suite of financial incentives should be available to SSSI owners and occupiers to assist with managing their land in a conservation-friendly way (para 74)

The proposed suite of incentives is to be welcomed. It will be an important strand of rural policy which will add an important dimension to the concept of sustainable development and commitment to the rural areas of Scotland. Support under Countryside Premium Schemes, however, is intended for the wider countryside so it would be unfortunate if this support was targeted to SSSIs. Management agreements with SSSI owners and their support should come primarily from the SNH budget. This will be one of SNH’s priorities and adequate resources will be required.

Proposal 18

Owners and occupiers should retain the right to challenge the scientific case for notification and to have it independently reviewed (para 76 (1))

We propose that the right to challenge be retained. However, the current system of appeal needs to be fairer and more transparent. Landowners are often puzzled and sometimes frustrated about SSSI designations on their land. Few of them have access to the technical literature which might enable them (or their representatives) to appreciate what SSSIs are for, or to contest the designation. Documents such as The Guidelines for the Selection of Biological SSSIs should be published and made more freely available to landowners. (See also response to proposal 11).

Proposal 19

(a) We invite views on whether the remit of the SSSI Advisory Committee should be widened to include consideration of the PDO list (para 76 (2))

The possibility of a right of appeal against inclusion of a particular PDO on a list should be considered, subject to review of the appeal by the SSSI Advisory Committee.

(b) and whether a right of appeal against refusal of consent to a PDO should be introduced (para 76 (3))

We refer to the Society’s response to 19(a), and accordingly would be in favour of this proposal.

Proposal 20

We invite views on how greater local community involvement in decisions on PDOs can best be achieved and some options are suggested (para 77)
Giving all local communities and authorities the primary responsibility for deciding notices of intent in relation to PDOs is likely to lead to fragmentation of the designation process and conflict between the various organisations. SNH and the land managers should deal primarily with matters of land management and scientific conservation.

Proposal 21

We ask for views on offering owners and occupiers, at the time of notification, the choice between a "conservation contract", a more focused PDO list or SSSI notification without PDO list or contract with SNH where protection is achieved by other mechanisms (para 81)

The offer of a choice between a PDO list and a management agreement is to be welcomed. In connection with the option of a management agreement, there should be allowance for a ten-year review. The "other mechanisms" are not acceptable.

Proposal 22

Comments and ideas are invited on the scope for maximising local economic benefits from Natura 2000 sites (para 82)

It should be recognised that SSSI/Natura 2000 is a nature conservation and biodiversity designation and is not about economic benefits, although in some cases there may be some value for tourism. One possible economic benefit which is not identified relates to education. Groups from schools and universities might be encouraged to visit SSSIs in order to receive ecological education. At present, there are too few outdoor centres in Scotland which have a truly educational objective.

Proposal 23

We ask for opinions on a newsletter for SSSI owners and occupiers (para 83)

Although not a priority, such a newsletter could be quite useful but its production and circulation would depend on the availability of resources. It could aid in the better understanding of SSSIs called for in response to Proposal 11.

Proposal 24

Views are invited on whether SNH should be required to produce Codes of Guidance (para 84)

The Society believes that SNH should produce Codes of Guidance backed by statute.

Proposal 25

Views are invited on whether there are circumstances where inappropriate or insufficient management is causing problems justifying the introduction of Land Management Orders (para 89)

The Society believes that such circumstances could exist, and that continued failure to conform to PDOs and management agreements should result in a Land Management Order. Support for SSSI management should not depend on the efforts of the Deer Commission, HLCAs or the Crofters Commission.

Proposal 26

Voluntary or compulsory land purchase by SNH and subsequent disposal or management (para 90)

The ability to recommend compulsory acquisition to the Secretary of State/First Minister should be retained. Acquisition by agreement should also continue and should be undertaken on a joint basis and/or with lease back arrangement.

Proposal 27

Is it necessary to retain NCOs if the refusal of PDO consent is final (subject to appeal)? (para 92)

The power to make NCOs should be retained as a last resort, when it is important to act quickly in order to prevent irreversible damage.

Proposal 28

Should the provisions for making Areas of Special Protection for Birds and byelaws be extended? (para 94)

The powers should remain and be extended to cover adjacent land.

Proposal 29

Views are invited on the proposal that the 1968 Act be amended to reflect the Government’s commitment to better protection and management of SSSIs (para 96)

Reform of the Wildlife and Countryside Acts lies at the heart of this process, but it must be scientifically compatible with legislation throughout the UK. Publishing statements in the interim, however, is unlikely to be of value and might simply increase costs.

Proposal 30

Views are invited on the proposal that the Forestry Commission guidelines on the sale of land of high conservation value be extended to cover disposal of similar land by other Government Departments and Agencies (97)

The guidelines should be extended to cover land of high conservation value managed by other Government Departments and Agencies. Bodies such as the Forestry Commission, however, should be able to retain high conservation value land which they already own and manage it accordingly. Government bodies and agencies should demonstrate the same responsibilities as those expected from the private sector.

Proposal 31

Should certain activities (currently permitted development) be the subject of formal planning application? (para 104)

The proposal that SNH would consider a Notice of Intent (as proposed in this paper) and would be able to refuse consent subject to right of appeal is supported. The alternative of certain activities no longer being treated as "permitted development" and therefore subject to a planning application is, however, not supported. In principle, the control of appropriate activity on SSSIs should remain the responsibility of SNH as the body responsible for nature conservation and the safeguarding of SSSIs.

Proposal 32

Penalties for damage (para 106)

Penalties for non-compliance should be increased and applied to all SSSIs, as the current levels are too low to constitute an effective deterrent. Differentiation between different types of SSSI would be confusing and could undermine the whole system. There should be bigger fines. Current court action relating to such matters is extremely rare. There may be a case for more rigorous enforcement protection, as punishment should be an effective deterrent.

Proposal 33

Views are invited on whether there are circumstances in which (in relation to interests of international significance) compensatory measures, including the provision of substitute habitats, might be sought and how those duties would be carried out (para 109)

The important point is to secure proper enforcement of agreed conditions and PDOs for all SSSIs, rather than restoring damage which should have been prevented by proper safeguard arrangements. If necessary, SNH should be able to act directly as an enforcement agency of last resort. Too much emphasis on the potential for the restoration of a site after use or damage is to be discouraged. However effective "restoration" may be, it is seldom possible to regain all features of the original ecosystem.

Proposal 34

Views are sought on extending SNH’s power to review and modify or revoke PDO consents to all SSSIs (subject to appeal) (para 111)

The proposal is welcomed.

Paragraph 114

Government would welcome views on the draft RIA (para 114)

The RIA should take account of the points we have made above.


The key issue is better nature conservation management and effective safeguarding of SSSIs. This means building on existing mechanisms including the NCR. Specific points are:

  • SSSIs should encompass marine sites, and important geological and geomorphological sites.
  • The existing series of SSSIs should be maintained.
  • SSSIs should underpin all European designations (Natura 2000 and SPA).
  • Further SSSIs should be designated according to existing rules, and the NCR continues to provide robust scientific criteria.
  • Scientific criteria should continue to be the top priority in designating SSSIs.
  • Management agreements or PDOs remain essential, although PDOs could be better presented.
  • Compensation should be discontinued and replaced with positive management agreements, taking into account the rights of owners, and providing the necessary resources.
  • SSSIs are primarily concerned with nature conservation and diversity and not with economic benefit.* More attention should also be given to the larger areas of the wider countryside, which are not SSSI designated but contribute to the nature conservation values of Scotland.
  • The role of National Nature Reserves, should be highlighted further. The earlier NCC decided as a matter of policy that all National Nature Reserves should also be designated as SSSIs to the full extent of their boundaries to ensure statutory protection. This should also be considered in Scotland.
  • Scottish Natural Heritage is currently under considerable strain, and implementation of any changes arising from this report will require commensurate resourcing to cover the proposed increase in workload.

Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands


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