By Dr Tony Whitbread
Last week I introduced the 'nature directives' – the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive – and reflected on one particular example showing how scarce heathland birds and their habitats benefit from the 'Special Protection Area' (SPA) status conferred on Ashdown Forest through the Birds Directive. I want to explore this ‘European’ designation further and its relationship to important areas for wildlife in Sussex.
‘Natura 2000’ is the formal term for the European network of protected areas established through the nature directives. It comprises SPAs for birds and ‘Special Areas of Conservation’ (SACs) for habitats, other animals and plants. By the end of 2013, a total of 27,300 terrestrial and marine Natura 2000 sites had been established across the 28 EU Member States, amounting to just over 18% of the 4.3 million km2 total land area. The nature directives provide the broad framework guiding Member States to identify and to designate under national legislation the SPAs and SACs which make up their contribution to the Natura 2000 network.
So how does Sussex fit into this European network? We have 20 Natura 2000 sites - six SPAs and 14 SACs, some of which extend across county borders into Hampshire, Surrey and Kent. The SPAs totalling about 9,000 hectares range from the south coast’s most important site for overwintering waterbirds (Chichester & Langstone Harbours) to the Rye Harbour/Dungeness complex hosting key breeding populations of terns, Mediterranean gulls, and wintering wildfowl, and inland to the heathland areas of Ashdown Forest and the Wealden Heaths. Sussex SACs total about 13,500 hectares. These include the diminutive 1.9ha Singleton & Cocking Tunnels site supporting Bechstein’s bats and barbastelles; the largest remnant patch of large-leaved lime woodland in southern England at Rook Clift (11ha); our own woodland reserves at Ebernoe Common and The Mens; and the chalk grasslands of Lewes Downs. Sussex also has a share in the vast 11,200 hectare Solent Maritime SAC which embraces a range of intertidal and coastal habitats extending, discontinuously, from Chichester to Lymington and the north-west coast of the Isle of Wight.
We recognise the importance of protected wildlife sites to achieving our goals, which is why we invest heavily in our own nature reserves. But our estate covers only a small fraction of Sussex (the 31 SWT reserves extend to 1,800 hectares – under 0.5% of the Sussex landscape). The Natura 2000 sites in Sussex play an important role in the network of protected wildlife areas, alongside sites recognised as nationally important (Sites of Special Scientific Interest, SSSIs) and locally significant (Local Wildlife Sites, LWSs).
Are SPAs and SACs better protected than SSSIs and Local Wildlife Sites? The simple answer is, in our experience, most definitely, yes. For instance, public authorities are obliged to take much greater care of the European sites, exercising greater scrutiny in the planning process to determine what the likely effects would be of any strategic plans (the local plans which focus on setting out areas for housing and other developments) and assessing the likely effects of any specific development proposals. The presumption is in favour of wildlife, and strict tests are applied to be sure that the habitats or species for which a Natura 2000 site has been established are not damaged, or, if a development is absolutely essential, then the effects on wildlife are properly and fully compensated. This is a powerful tool in the defence of nature, and something which we have come to value very highly indeed.