Yorkshire and the Humber third worst region for protecting natural beauty spots - here's how Harrogate is affected

From the White Cliffs of Dover to the Scottish Highlands, the UK has an abundance of protected beauty spots - but many of them are under threat, new analysis shows.

Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 2:01 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 2:02 pm

Thousands of the country’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are in a poor state, with half of official inspections finding unsatisfactory conditions.

Nature under threat: The picture across the UK

Wildlife charities have branded the findings “shocking”, while governments have said they are taking action to restore sites.

Hay-a-park, which is classed as 'unfavourable - declining).

Local picture

At nature spot Brimham Rocks, near Harrogate, much of the SSSI was assessed as ‘unfavourable, recovering’ at its last inspection by Natural England.

A spokesperson for The National Trust, who manage the site, said: “This is mainly due to a dominance of birch and bracken species and a lack of mixed age structure within the heather.

“The ‘unfavourable recovering status’ often known simply as ‘recovering’ refers to the fact that whilst the units are not yet fully conserved, all the necessary management plans are in place and that provided that this recovery work is sustained, the unit will reach favourable condition in time.”

A graphic showing the national picture: JPI Media

The trust’s current work programme around Brimham includes felling birch, mechanically cutting the heather; spraying and bruising bracken, creating 'dead hedge' habitats and managing pond habitats.

The spokesperson added: “Over the next two years we hope to introduce conservation cattle grazing on the moorland - cattle will graze the heather and create the varied, mixed-age structure habitat that ground nesting birds prefer.

“They'll introduce droppings to the benefit of invertebrate species and they'll browse off young birch saplings, allowing our rangers to concentrate their felling efforts on more established trees.”

The National Trust took on the site in 1970 when the land had been grazed by sheep and largely neglected in terms of its conservation needs.

Brimham Rocks. Picture: JPI Media

It’s work over the last 10-15 years has focused on improving the condition of the moorland and rocks setting, with the cattle introduction the next phase in achieving favourable status.

Other SSSI's in the area include Birkham Wood, which is classed as being in a favourable condition, Hay-a-Park (unfavourable, declining) and Kirk Deighton (unfavourable, recovering).

‘We can’t even protect the jewels in the crown’

SSSIs are protected areas for nature conservation and can cover anything from breeding grounds for rare species to peatland.

Half of the most recent inspections (49.9%) of protected land or natural features found poor conditions or the destruction of habitats, analysis by the JPIMedia Data Unit found.

Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said it was “shocking that our top wildlife sites are in such poor condition”.

He said: “If we can’t even protect the jewels in the crown, it’s little wonder that UK nature is in such poor shape.

“The new government must make the protection and restoration of our natural environment a top priority.”

Kate Jennings, head of site conservation policy at the RSPB, added: “The current state of SSSIs across the four countries of the UK is shocking. Many have not been assessed for years so the actual picture may in fact be worse.

“If our governments are serious about tackling the climate and nature emergencies we need a huge step change in action, and it needs to happen now.”

Across the UK

In England, SSSIs are inspected in smaller sections called units. More than half of these units (53%) are in an unfavourable condition, inspection data shows.

Across the Yorkshire and the Humber, 63 per cent of units were assessed as being in an unfavourable condition, the third worst nationally after the East Midlands and North West.

Guidelines state SSSI features in England should be assessed at least every six years, but our analysis found more than half (12,394) of sites have not been assessed since 2011.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said while most of England’s SSSIs were either in a favourable condition or were recovering, they recognised that “more needs to be done to improve these vital sites”.

“That’s why we are focusing on restoring those sites that are still in a recovering condition so we can enhance these important areas,” the spokesperson said.

Natural Resources Wales does not have a comprehensive programme for monitoring the condition of its SSSIs and was unable to provide inspection data for analysis.