Environmental groups welcome measures to protect SSSIs in Queen’s Speech

Environmental groups have welcomed the announcement in the Queen's speech that Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) will receive more protection in the new Countryside Amenity and Conservation Bill.

The Bill, details of which will not be available until it is published early next year, will provide greater protection to SSSIs and wildlife species through increased enforcement powers. It is thought that water companies could face heavier restrictions on and penalties for abstraction from such sites.

When approved by Parliament the Bill will strengthen protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest through tougher penalties and give extra powers for the prosecution of ‘wildlife criminals.’

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said: “The legislation announced today indicates the Government’s firm commitment to the wider environmental agenda, and specifically to protecting our finest habitats and wildlife species. Full details will be set out when the Bill is published. The measures will help ensure the preservation of the diversity and richness of our natural environment for future generations.”

Environment groups welcomed the announcement. “This provides new options for the 1 in 5 SSSIs which have been suffering from a lack of management for many years”, said Derek Langslow, English Nature’s Chief Executive. He stressed that the new measures will only affect those land managers who do not want to co-operate with English Nature to prevent the deterioration of and deliberate damage to SSSIs.

Langslow said English Nature will continue to press for accompanying reforms to the European Common Agricultural Policy and other policy changes including stiffer tests in planning guidance for developments affecting SSSIs.

Friends of the Earth and the RSPB welcomed the announcement, but said that as the full contents of the Bill will not be known until January 2000 they will also seek to strengthen the Bill to stop peat extraction on over 400 SSSIs (see related story)and to protect other sites under threat from mineral extraction.

The RSPB also called for tougher penalties for landowners damaging SSSIs and greater incentives for managing SSSIs positively.

Andrew Lee, WWF’s deputy Director of Conservation, greeted the Bill as “a real breakthrough for species such as the water vole that have faced great uncertainty in recent years.”

WWF also wants to see the bill used to bring wildlife protection laws up to European standards. Carol Hatton, Senior Wildlife Campaigner, explained: “The government has faced some highly embarrassing defeats recently about the way it has implemented the European Habitats Directive. WWF hopes it will use this bill to provide the fullest protection to species and habitats that are not only valuable nationally but to the whole of Europe.”

The announcement contrasts with a lack of action in Scotland, despite a commitment from the Scottish Executive to strengthen the protection of SSSIs.

WWF’s Living Countryside Campaign is calling for stronger legislation to protect wildlife throughout the UK, the designation of more Special Areas of Conservation (sites protected under European law) and the shift of resources to help manage these areas for the benefit of wildlife and people.

Following pressure from WWF, the government is being obliged to review its list of candidate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) with a view to adding more sites to protect key habitats and species. At a special EU meeting in Paris on 16 November, the government agreed to reopen its lists for the grey and common seal, otter, bechstein bat, barbastelle bat, lesser horseshoe bat, western rustwort, slender green feather moss, and petalwort. In total, the government must reconsider protection for a third of the species found in Great Britain and listed on the Directive, WWF said in a statement (see related story).

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