Wetland grasses


A brief guide to the designations which protect nature in England

SSSI - Site of Special Scientific Interest

Dearne Valley, general landscape views

SSSIs are nationally important sites for wildlife and geology. There are more than 4,000 in England, identified and protected by Natural England. They are managed by more than 26,000 owners and occupiers and cover about 8% of the country. These sites have some legal protection from both damaging forms of management and from development.

NNR - National Nature Reserve/MNR - Marine Nature Reserve

Close up view of an adult northern gannet, with wings spread open ready to land on a cliff edge, RSPB Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve

NNRs are managed for wildlife by the statutory nature conservation bodies, or other approved bodies. There are about 390 NNRs across the UK. There is a presumption against development of NNRs, but they do not have any legal protection. MNRs are the marine equivalent of NNRs. However only three have been designated in the UK (Lundy Island, Skomer Island and Strangford Lough) together covering only 0.1 % of UK territorial waters).

International designation: Ramsar sites

Small group of knots resting on green islands of land on the shoreline at Leighton Moss

Some of the world’s most significant wetlands for wildlife, especially waterfowl, are designated as Ramsar sites, including 71 in England. They are protected under the International Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, which was established in the Iranian town of Ramsar in 1971.


In the UK, Ramsar sites are, as a matter of policy, subject to the same strict legal protection as Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation.

International designation: SPA- Special Protection Areas

Common eider Somateria mollissima, stretching wings, Northumberland

SPAs are created to protect one or more threatened or vulnerable bird species. They were originally established under the 1979 European Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds but have since been adopted by all four governments of the UK into our national laws. Governments are required by these laws to take appropriate steps to avoid pollution or deterioration of SPAs, or any significant disturbance affecting the birds.

International designation: SAC - Special Areas for Conservation

Landscape view of reserve showing heather and water, Arne RSPB Reserve, Dorset.

SACs protect sites of importance for wildlife other than birds. They were originally established under the 1992 European Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats but have since been adopted by all four governments of the UK into our national laws. SPAs and SACs together are the UK’s contribution to the Emerald Network – an international network of protected areas under the Bern Convention to which the UK is a signatory.