In the UK, sites of special significance or importance are regulated through seperate regimes designed to optimise the protection and utilization of their unique elements. These regimes may operate on a national, international or European level. This section provides an introduction to the UK’s main natural environment conservation designations, highlighting their relative importance in terms of protection:

Please note: The legislation described in this section is correct at January 2011

Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
Areas which have been identified as being of national and international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or the migration of rare and vulnerable species of birds found within European Union countries.    

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

Areas which have been given special protection under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. They provide increased protection to a variety of wild animals, plants and habitats. 

Ramsar sites

Wetlands of international importance, designated under the Ramsar Convention.  As a matter of policy, Ramsar sites in the UK are protected as European sites (as set out in the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended). NATURA 2000 is the European network of protected areas comprising SPAs and SACs.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)
Wildlife and geological sites, including many habitat types such as: wetlands; rivers, heathlands, meadows, beaches, moorland and peat bog. SSSI are afforded protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI)
In Northern Ireland the SSSI term is not used. ASSIs are areas of land that have been identified by scientific survey as being of the highest degree of conservation value. The law relating to ASSIs is contained in the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.

National Nature Reserves (NNRs)

Exist to protect valued habitats, species and geology. Most Reserves offer opportunities to the public and specialist audiences to experience natural heritage.

Local Nature Reserves (LNRs
Designated by local authorities under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Local authorities have powers to acquire, declare and manage sites. To qualify for LNR status, a site must be of importance for wildlife, geology, education or public enjoyment. Some are also nationally important Sites of Special Scientific Interest. LNRs must be managed by the local authority through ownership, lease or agreement with the owner. Local Nature Reserves should be special natural places that people (and in particular local people) value and would want to support. They should be thought of positively and not as left over places.

Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs)
Local designations to protect areas of importance for wildlife at a county scale. They can also be referred to as Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC), County Wildlife Sites and Sites of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. Overall, the designation is referred to as a “non-statutory wildlife site”. The designated sites are protected by local authorities from most development. SINCs are being superseded in Scotland by the Local Nature Conservation Site System as detailed in Scotland Local Nature Conservation Guidance, 2006.

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)
Areas of high scenic quality that have statutory protection in order to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of their landscapes. Natural England has a statutory power to designate land as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

National Scenic Areas
Scotland’s only national landscape designation. They are those areas of land considered of national significance on the basis of their outstanding scenic interest which must be conserved as part of the country’s natural heritage. They have been selected for their characteristic features of scenery comprising a mixture of richly diverse landscapes including prominent landforms, coastline, sea and freshwater lochs, rivers, woodlands and moorlands.

Open Mosaic Habitat

Open Mosaic Habitat (OMH) is the UK Biodiversity Action Plan habitat site type for previously developed land (PDL). It applies to sites greater than 0.25 hectares. The existence of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, published in 1994, arises from the UK Government’s commitment to biodiversity made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and in direct response to the resulting Convention on Biological Diversity. To implement the UK BAP, the UK Biodiversity Group has produced a list of Habitat Action Plans and Species Action Plans (HAPs and SAPs). These nation-wide plans are implemented on a local level, through local biodiversity action plans, which are drawn up by individual Local Authorities.