Concern over "shocking" state of county's protected beauty spots

Some 66 per cent of site inspections in the north west were rated unfavourable
Some 66 per cent of site inspections in the north west were rated unfavourable

From the Ribble and Wyre estuaries in the West, to the South Pennine Moors in the East the county of Lancashire has an abundance of protected beauty spots.

But many of them are under threat, new analysis shows.

Alan Wright, Communications Manager for The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside

Alan Wright, Communications Manager for The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside

Lancashire has around 70 Sites of Special Scientific Interest(SSSI), which are split into units for inspection according to their habitat.

A vast swathe of these are concentrated on the areas covered by the Lancaster and Ribble Valley boroughs.

There is at least one SSSI in each of the local authority areas in Lancashire but responsibility for SSSIs does not rest with the local authorities in which they sit.

Over 40% of inspections shows that some are in a poor state.

Elliott Lorimer, manager of the Bowland AONB

Elliott Lorimer, manager of the Bowland AONB

And while that figure may be seen as disappointing, it is much better than the North West as a whole and better than neighbouring regions.

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

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

Over two-fifth (41.5 per cent) of the most recent inspections of protected land or natural features in Lancashire found poor conditions or the destruction of habitats, analysis by the JPIMedia Data Unit found.

Large heath butterfly photographed at Winmarleigh Moss by Alan Wright

Large heath butterfly photographed at Winmarleigh Moss by Alan Wright

The inspected sites are divided into units - which can vary enormously in size.

Almost 20 per cent of those inspections took place across the vast Bowland Fells where inspections reported largely unfavourable states with many areas declining.

Elliott Lorimer, manager of the Bowland AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), said: “Natural England are the government agency responsible for the condition of the SSSi units in Bowland...it’s quite a complicated picture as to why they are in the condition they are.”

Units can vary is size from large tracts of moorland to small patches of woodland.

Elliott continued: “We’re here to work with all parties. It’s a partnership. We’re working with landowners across the AONB we work with them to help deliver where we can improve habitats under management or restoration but we also work closely with Natural England to make sure where we can we can get them to deliver statutory duty. It’s a challenge - it’s not controversial to say Natural England’s budgets have been under severe pressure and that has impacted on their ability to deliver all their statutory duties.”

Alan Wright, communications manager for The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, agreed that more investment is needed to ensure sites are maintained and restored.

He stressed that in many cases, as for example at Winmarleigh Moss, near Garstang, the Trust knows restoration of its sites is a longer term project.

He said: “These mosses we take on are peat extraction sites. Sometimes we’re starting from a standing start when it will take 10 to 20 years to fix. Similarly with fires on the West Pennine moors to get back to where they were it’s going to take 10 to 20 years.”

In the West Pennine area the Trust’s own site Longworth Clough was not hit by fire, but other factors - such as the transfer of Himalayan Balsam seeds by waterways can also affect ratings.

Alan stressed that much good work is continuing, with, for example, plans to introduce butterfly rides on Warton Crag in north Lancashire: ”A lot is down to work in progress and what resources we can get and whether we can get funding to look after these areas. These are massively important and are all part of the nature recovery networks we’re trying to get across the country - these things can’t be looked after in isolation.”

He continued: “A lot of the problem is down to funds. Natural England has not been able to put in a lot of resources because of cutbacks. They’ve lost about 1,000 staff since 2009/10.”

Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said that nationally 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.”

Nikki Williams, The Wildlife Trust’s director of campaigns and policy, said bodies such as Natural England, which monitor the condition of sites, had been starved of funding.

She called for them to get a substantial cash injection “to enable them to carry out their functions effectively and to ensure our protected sites are restored and enhanced”.

In England, SSSIs are inspected in smaller sections called units, accounting for the 50 inspections in the Bowland Fells.

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.