SACs, SPAs, SSSIs: what do they mean (and should we care)?

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Aerial view of Upper Solway at a very low tide

Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.” [6]

Protected areas: their borders aren’t marked by posts or buoys, but they are marked by lines on maps, and by co-ordinates and words in documents.

Native and migrant wading birds don’t know about the borders, but they know that this great seascape of changing tides and rich mudflats and saltmarshes is where they want and need to be. Burrowing crustacea, worms and bivalve molluscs, samphire, sea-kale and pink thrift, the millions of microscopic animals and plants and algae that make up the densely-interwoven life of the Solway Firth – their lives depend on the intricacy and uniqueness of their three-dimensional surroundings.

This is why the Upper Solway is protected from human exploitation and ‘re-arrangement’ by layers of statutory – that is, legally-enforceable – conservation designations. You can investigate their virtual boundaries yourself on the excellent interactive maps on MagicMap [1]. I have included screen-shots here for simplicity (having enquired of MagicMap whether I might do so) but you can ‘layer’ the designated areas if you go to the MagicMap website.

‘Designations’, ‘directives’, ‘habitat’, and hosts of unmemorable acronyms (2, 3): I’m well aware that these are a turn-off for those of us who aren’t professionally involved in looking after our country’s wildlife, but there is a way of appreciating them, which I explain elsewhere.

‘Safe areas’ along the Solway    

First, though, let’s look at our Solway Firth, the sea and estuaries and the many varieties of coastal ‘edge-lands’ that form this large crooked finger of water that reaches deep into the borderlands between Scotland and England.

The large, and main, protected area of the Solway Firth is the Upper Solway Flats and Marshes, which unites the two countries around the coasts and across the water.

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Ramsar sites (in green). From MagicMap

This is a Ramsar site – designated as important wetlands under The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands,  an intergovernmental, ie international, treaty which ‘provides the framework for national action and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.’

Exactly the same area is designated under EU legislation as a European Marine Site (EMS). This is quite complicated and I quote from the Solway Firth Partnership’s website:

“A Special Protection Area (SPA) is a site designated under the Birds Directive. These sites, together with Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), are called Natura sites and they are internationally important for threatened habitats and species. Natura sites form a unique network of protected areas which stretch across Europe [my italics]. The inner Solway Firth … is designated as an SAC and SPA and is collectively known as the Solway Firth European Marine Site. The [separate] Solway Firth SAC designation reflects the importance of the site’s marine and coastal habitats including merse (saltmarsh), mudflats and reefs. The Upper Solway Flats and Marshes SPA designation recognises the large bird populations that these habitats support, particularly in winter.”

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SACs (purple) & SPAs (blue). From MagicMap

It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under UK statutory protection (overseen by Natural England & Scottish Natural Heritage, respectively. So it’s not trivial.

And note that a proposal to extend the SPA is currently under consideration (for more details, a map, and how to respond, see the Solway Firth Partnership’s website.)

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Proposed SPA (from Solway Firth Partnership’s website)

Although not strictly within the Firth, there are other international Ramsar sites along the adjacent coasts: the inner part of Luce Bay, and the Duddon and Morecambe Estuaries (again, on the basis of being internationally important wetland areas). They – and the coast at Drigg near Sellafield – are also Special Areas of Conservation, SACs, under EU statutes.

The Solway’s  importance for birds – so many species, both residents and migrants, and in such numbers – is also recognised by the UK charities the Wildlife & Wetlands Trust with their big wetland and coastal reserve at Caerlaverock, and by the RSPB’s coastal and wetland reserves at Campfield and St Bees’ Head.

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MCZs. Designated (green) and Recommended (yellow). From MagicMap

Over the past few years, DEFRA has been designating parts of the English and Irish seas and coast as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). The ‘Cumbrian Coast MCZ’ stretches along the shore from St Bees’ Head to Ravenglass, and ‘Allonby Bay MCZ’ pushes out into the Solway, recognised especially for its important honeycomb-worm (Sabellaria) reefs . Three deep-sea muddy areas in the Irish Sea, with their own special animals, have also been put forward for consideration by DEFRA in the next round; one of these is Mud-Hole near to the Cumbrian coast, home to ‘Dublin Bay prawns’ (aka scampi, Norway lobsters, Nephrops). The ‘Solway Firth’ recommended MCZ  has been re-entered into this tranche for consideration, as a site of importance for smelt.

MCZs are designated under the UK’s Marine & Coastal Access Act, which in turn was set up in response to the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Parcels of protection

The sea, estuaries, mudflats and saltmarshes of the Solway Firth have been parcelled, here and there, into places of protection for what economists would call our ‘natural capital’ – as though it is something to be used or exchanged – but for what in reality are the vast numbers and species of other residents of our own land- and sea-scape.

The Solway’s estuaries and coasts are not solely a product of the sea and the mouths of the many rivers that flow into the Firth – they are also influenced strongly, both in geological time and the short-term, by what happens inland.

If we move inshore, a little deeper into the edgelands, we find dunes, then peaty raised mires (the ‘Mosses’) (4) and areas of carr and wetland where water is retained. Many of these places are special, too – for their appearance and ‘feel’, the colours, the smells, and the very different plants and animals and fungi that live there.

And luckily for us – and them – many are under statutory protection.

Most of the UK’s remaining raised mires are around the Solway’s upper end, and the South Solway Mosses – Wedholme Flow , Glasson Moss, Bowness Common and Drumburgh Moss – on the English side, are Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) protected by European legislation. So too is Kirkconnell Flow near Dumfries.

Then there are the National Nature Reserves (NNR), protected by UK legislation: on the English side, the South Solway Mosses, Drumburgh Moss, Walton Moss and Thornhill Moss; on the Scottish side Caerlaverock merse and Kirkconnell Flow.

We have the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), 50 km of coastline stretching from Maryport along the dunes and saltmarshes to Rockcliffe, managed in statutory compliance (5) with the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 (CroW) and overseen by the three local councils, and Natural England; the AONB incorporates SSSIs too.

And there are many SSSIs, both sides of the Firth, along the coast and inshore; they too are under UK statutory protection through the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and CRoW, and managed by Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. Amongst them, I’ve already mentioned the Upper Solway Flats & Marches – but there are also, for example, the SSSIs of the South Solway Mosses, Finglandrigg Wood, Silloth Dunes and Mawbray Banks, Maryport Harbour, St Bees’ Head, Drigg Coast … and on the Scottish side, Kirkconnell Flow, Auchencairn and Orchardtown Bays, Abbeyhead Coast, Brighouse Bay, Wigtown Sands and the Whithorn Coast…

I haven’t yet mentioned the many GeoConservation Sites (formerly known as RIGS), such as exposures of the submerged forest near Beckfoot, and Marshall’s red sandstone quarry above St Bees’; although some of these are SSSIs and therefore under statutory protection, many are not. And I’m not going to consider the few Local Nature Reserves such as Siddick Pond.

‘Too much information?’

I’ve brought this information together

  • firstly to understand how, and to what degree, the Solway Firth and its edgelands are protected from human intervention, whether from carelessness or from major construction projects;
  • and secondly, to dispel my own despair over lists of acronyms by considering what these ‘designated areas’ mean in real-life terms.

Let’s turn again to Richard Fortey: “Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.”

He persuades us to think beyond the check-list of  ‘species found’: to pause, and take time to examine the stories and life-habits of those species. But his suggestion could equally apply to the list of designated conservation areas along the Solway. SAC? Tick. SPA? Tick. SSSI? Tick, tick, tick …

And what of those ‘stories’? I invite you to investigate them by turning to The acronyms’ stories on my Solway Shore Stories website, and starting to read from the section headed ‘Imagine’. I hope these might help an understanding of the reality of conservation designations.

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Ewes on the flooded saltmarsh, Moricambe Bay (AONB, SSSI, SAC, SPA, Ramsar)

Designations, legislations

What, though, if that story-book gets torn, or if a group of people decide the books are merely clutter and should be thrown out?

If you carry out dredging operations on Ramsar mudflats, place gas-gun bird-scarers on an SAC, drag a trawl across the bottom of an MCZ, or set fire to the heather on a SSSI – who has the power to stop you? Will you get a ‘talking-to’ or be taken to court? And if you are to be prosecuted, under which laws, and in which court and where – a local magistrate’s court, a Crown court, or the European Court of Justice? Post-Brexit, will we have a UK Environmental Court? (In answer to the latter question (Q329) at the Environmental Audit Select Committee, Andrea Leadsom of DEFRA stated we will not. But Ministers’ statements are rarely set in stone.)

The answers to any questions regarding legislation are, as you might expect, very complicated (and might lead you on to further questions such as ‘So, who does own the foreshore of the SAC?’ – and the answer to that depends on which bit of the foreshore …).

It also depends whether the damage is done by you, as an individual and therefore ‘third party’ (when you might be answerable to, for example, Natural England (7) and petty crimes might be prosecuted in local courts), or whether the damage occurs because one of the statutory organisations – such as the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage – have failed to fully protect or manage a designated site. More serious infringements could well require lawyers expensively well-versed in international environmental law.

After looking into this, and asking questions of my friends and contacts in the relevant organisations, I realised this section could stretch to several pages. So, happily, I can point you to the Marine section of the excellent website, [8] ‘Law & the environment, a plain guide to environmental law’

Also, there is a government website [9] solely concerned with legislation. From the page on Marine Strategy regulations you can, if you wish, click on Section 2, Enactments, and can keep following and clicking (here, for example, is how the MMO has power to bring legal proceedings). And so on, and on, until you forget which question you wanted answered, and need to escape to watch videos of ‘dogs doing silly things’ on YouTube.

Instead, it’s often worthwhile to pause and to imagine what those acronyms stand for in the real world of the Solway Firth and its edgelands – and feel positive about the future.

Footnotes and useful websites:

My sincere thanks to Dr Emily Baxter (Senior Marine Conservation Officer, NorthWest Wildlife Trusts), Dr Brian Irving (Solway Coast AONB) and Clair McFarlane (Partnership Manager, Solway Firth Partnership) for their help in pulling together this information. Any mistakes are mine.

1.MagicMap http://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx

2. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) directory of designations for protected areas http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-1527

3. Natural England’s National Character Assessment NCA no 6 The Solway Basin http://nepubprod.appspot.com/publication/5276440824119296 p22 for Landscape & Nature Conservation Designations (on the English side only)

Solway Firth Partnership’s website explains and illustrates some of the Scottish & English designations http://www.solwayfirthpartnership.co.uk/index.php?page=special-places

4. Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) detailed explanations about characteristics and statutory provisions for raised mires in general http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/protectedsites/sacselection/habitat.asp?FeatureIntCode=H7110

and for the South Solway Mosses http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/protectedsites/sacselection/sac.asp?EUcode=UK0030310

5. The legal framework for AONBs http://www.landscapesforlife.org.uk/aonb-legal-framework.html

6. Richard Fortey. (2016) The Wood for the Trees: the long view of nature from a small wood. Collins.

7. Enforcement by Natural England of SSSI policy http://www.sssi.naturalengland.org.uk/Special/sssi/images/EnforcementPolicyNotice.pdf

8. Law & the environment, a plain guide to environmental law http://www.environmentlaw.org.uk/rte.asp?id=270

9. Government legislation website http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2010/1627/contents/made

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