Dear Natural England

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Dear Natural England

I live in Northamptonshire and am interested in the status of several local SSSIs, all of which I have visited. I have looked them up on your rather excellent website and note that you invite users of the website to contact you for more information. So, that’s what I am doing. Please treat this information request as an EIR request (if that makes any difference).

I am concerned about two issues which apply to many of my local sites:

  1. when the sites’ units’ conditions were last assessed
  2. the assessment of condition of the units

Unit assessment years;

According to your website the following SSSI units were last assessed in the following years:

  • Aldwincle Marsh SSSI (whole), August 2010
  • Badby Wood SSSI Unit 1, June 2010
  • Badby Wood SSSI Unit 2, December 2011
  • Everdon Stubbs SSSI (whole), June 2012
  • Glapthorn Cow Pasture SSSI (whole), July 2011
  • Old Sulehay Forest SSSI (whole), September 2013
  • Short Wood SSSI (whole), June 2011
  • Twywell Gullet SSSI (whole), November 2017
  • Yardley Chase SSSI Units 15-17,  June 2012

These all seem a long time ago, and although there are some Northamptonshire SSSI Units which, according to your website, have been much more recently assessed, the examples I have given are but a fraction of those which have not been visited for many years.

My questions are:

  1. are the dates for when English SSSI Units were last assessed generally accurate on your website?
  2. are the dates for when Northamptonshire SSSI Units were last assessed generally accurate on your website?
  3. are the assessment dates for 12 SSSI Units listed above accurate?
  4. for the 12 SSSI Units listed above, when are they next going to be visited and their condition assessed?

Unit condition assessments;

  • Aldwincle Marsh SSSI (whole), August 2010, Unfavourable Recovering
  • Badby Wood SSSI Unit 1, June 2010, Unfavourable Recovering
  • Badby Wood SSSI Unit 2, December 2011, Unfavourable No Change
  • Everdon Stubbs SSSI (whole), June 2012, Unfavourable No Change
  • Glapthorn Cow Pasture SSSI (whole), July 2011, Unfavourable Recovering
  • Old Sulehay Forest SSSI (whole), September 2013, Unfavourable Recovering
  • Short Wood SSSI (whole), June 2011, Favourable
  • Twywell Gullet SSSI (whole), November 2017, Unfavourable Declining
  • Yardley Chase SSSI Units 15-17,  June 2012, Unfavourable Recovering

My questions are:

  1. am I right to believe that the status Unfavourable Recovering may have been given to SSSI Units on the basis of there being some sort of plan in existence  (perhaps an HLS agreement or a management plan for a site managed  by a conservation NGO) rather than an actual biological assessment of the site based on an actual visit?
  2. how often does the ‘Recovering’ part of Unfavourable Recovering actually mean that a Natural England member of staff has visited a site and measured a biological improvement in the state of the site?
  3. in the 7 SSSI units listed above which are listed by Natural England as being in Unfavourable Recovering condition, what is the evidence that they are  recovering?
  4. after what period of time does Natural England admit that condition assessments are out of date and no longer reliable? (Maybe you need a new category – perhaps ‘dunno!’ might be appropriate?).

10 Replies to “Dear Natural England”

  1. Good luck with that Mark. I have tried to access information via their protected sites e-mail address. The response was a standard reply stating that ‘statutory queries’ are prioritised, so looks like you go to the back of the queue. Eventually I got an e-mail which listed just about every link that NE has on their website – almost all already accessed hence my enquiry. Trying to contact my local NE office or get someone to respond to an e-mail is also fruitless. So it seems the only way to get any response to a specific questions is to FOI/EIR it.

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for this: a couple of questions for information.

    1. What is an EIR request?
    2. What is an HLS agreement?

    I feel I should know, but……… and will probably kick myself when I find out!!

    Love the new category ‘Dunno’

    Thank you for the Newsletter and taking the trouble to write it, I always look forward to it and it’s interesting content.


    1. EIR is the Environmental Information Regulations (which are similar in purpose and effect to the Freedom of Information Regulations but focussed on environmental information). HLS is ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ – an agreement in which the landowner receives money in return for managing the land in a manner that fosters biodiversity.

  3. Sure this must be on your radar, but I believe NE recognise the imbalance between the resources the Government give them and the present method, hence their relatively recent consultation on changing how SSSI’s are assessed and reported:

    Will let people draw their own conclusions on the direction of travel

  4. NE seem to lack the resources and political will to engage with the condition of SSSIs. The euphemism of unfavourable can mean that were the site to be assessed now, it would not meet the criteria it was designated for – and therefore remains a SSSI in name only. Often species listed for the sites have not been seen in many years, sometimes decades. What is depressing is that SSSIs cannot be considered for Biodiversity Net Gain. Why?

    1. The point of Common Standards Monitoring is not just to provide a means of reporting on SSSIs, but also to provide triggers for management action. So any feature or management unit that has been classed as “unfavourable” should be receiving recovery management and should not, therefore, have continued to decline to the point where features are lost and de-designation is on the cards. As long as this triggering has occurred, the bigger concern is that features or units that were classed as “favourable” some long time ago are now “unfavourable” and no-one has noticed.

  5. Just to help answer a few questions in the comments:

    EIR = Environmental Information Request (think a freedom of information request but through different legislation and constrained to environmental data)
    HLS = Higher Level Stewardship Agri-Environment funding

    And SSSIs are not directly part of Biodiversity Net Gain for good reasons – it is already a bit debatable putting a number on biodiversity, so understandably to me, the government has said whilst you can use the new metric to calculate biodiversity impact and mitigation outside of an irreplaceable habitat/protected site, you cannot reduce the value of the irreplaceable habitat/protected site to a number using this process. Instead for SSSIs you have to both apply for legal Consent or Assent to impact on the site which NE have to approve and then also agree with the Local Authority a suitable level of mitigation and compensation that can refer to BNG numbers but should go over and above that rather than just being decided by the numbers. It is not perfect but it is better to me than just saying a unit of biodiversity on say an area of modified grassland football pitch is the same as a unit of biodiversity on an upland blanket bog sssi.

  6. I can remember English Nature (as it then was) first introducing their definition of “Unfavourable Recovering” to encompass sites with management agreements. They pointed out, on our objection from Wales, that it was our idea they were adopting. But our view had been that it would be OK to class an SSSI feature as recovering if there was management in place that we were confident (from documented past experience) would work, and that management was actually being carried out. Interesting to see that, even now, a couple of decades later, their approach persists.

    Notwithstanding the weaknesses of NE’s approach to defining recovery, it’s worth comparing their definitions with those of JNCC – JNCC is supposed to set the standards for designated site monitoring in the UK. These can be found at . English Nature and Natural England have always diverged from the standard definitions, and from the standard practice in monitoring and classifying their management units rather than SSSI features. Interestingly, the JNCC definition implies that evidence of recovery is required to demonstrate a trend towards favourable condition. In Wales, where I was working, we took the view that this was not possible in most situations – it required much more detailed data collection than simply demonstrating favourable condition vs unfavourable. Hence the suggestion about deducing recovery from management – at the time, there was relatively little good quality evidence about management, which would push most unfavourable features into the declining category (ie our precautionary approach assumed unfavourable features were declining unless there was good reason to believe otherwise – the “no change” category is, in this analysis, a nonsense).

    Your “Dunno” category. As I recall, an original common standard, which I cannot now find on the JNCC website, was that each SSSI feature was to be monitored at least once every six years. Then, every six years, JNCC was to roll up all the assessments to produce a UK report. This they did in 2006 but, as far as I know, this exercise has never been repeated. The point is, that if the six year standard is being followed (who knows?), then any assessment that’s more than six years old is, by definition, invalid. Definitely dunno!

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