Wildlife and Habitat Protection
Most wildlife causes no damage and adds value and interest to historic buildings and sites. Indeed, many sites are important habitats and the historic environment has an important role in nature recovery.
This page includes advice on wildlife site designations and protected plants and animals; and briefing on nature recovery and biodiversity net gain.
Further advice on wildlife and habitat conservation is provided by Defra.
Owners and managers need to be aware of:
Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
This Act covers the protection of birds (including birds of prey), animals (including bats), reptiles and amphibians, plants and sites. Out of the list of protected species it is particularly important to note:
All wild birds are protected by law.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Section 1 makes it an offence to kill, injure or take any wild bird; or to take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or to take or destroy an egg of any wild bird. The 'nesting period' when nests are being built or in use varies slightly depending on the weather each year but is generally February to August.
Some species of birds, particularly when in large numbers, can cause problems for historic buildings. Our web page on bird deterrents covers options, licences and consents required.
Our page on Opening for Visitors and Schools includes advice on falconry displays.
All bats and their roosts (whether in use or not) are protected by law. Our Building Works and Bats section provides further guidance.
Protection of Badgers Act 1992
Badgers are protected under their own Act not because they are rare but to stop cruelty and to make all aspects of 'badger baiting' illegal. Our badgers and archaeological sites page provides advice on the management of badgers if they are damaging sites.
Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (NERC) 2006
This Act includes the duty 'Every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity' (Section 40).
Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010
The European Directive 92/43 EEC 'Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora' was approved by the Council of Ministers in 1992 and transposed into UK law. These Regulations are often referred to as the 'Habitats Regs'. Defra provides guidance on the application of these regulations when assessing projects.
Environment Act 2021
This legislation includes measures to halt the decline of species and improve the natural environment. It sets a legally binding target on nature recovery by 2030 and measures such as Biodiversity Net Gain.
Historic sites may also be designated for their wildlife interest. The various types of protected wildlife sites form an important network of habitats across the country:
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)
SSSIs are the largest nature conservation designation type and form the backbone of the wildlife protected area series in England.
SSSIs are areas of land and water considered designated for their 'special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features'. There are over 3,000 sites covering more than 800,000 hectares or 6.1% of England. There are also marine SSSIs.
18% of scheduled monuments are also SSSIs, and nearly 6% of registered parks and gardens overlap with SSSI designations. There are over 400 listed buildings in SSSIs.
Natural England has published a report on the historical development of SSSIs and their prospects in a changing environment (2022).
The Defra web page explains when you need to apply for consent.
Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)
SACs are designated under the Habitats Directive in order to protect internationally important or threatened habitats and species. There are currently 254 SACs in England covering 1,068,558 hectares.
Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
SPAs are designated under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended) in England and Wales. These sites are protected as important habitats for rare and vulnerable birds, and migratory species. There are currently 82 SPAs in England covering 972,335 hectares plus two offshore SPAs.
These sites are designated under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat 1971 (the Ramsar Convention). There are currently 68 Ramsar sites in England covering 320,648 hectares plus three joint England-Wales sites and one England-Scotland site. The sites include reservoirs and lakes, river valleys, marshes, estuaries and the coastland.
Sites designated as SACs, SPAs and Ramsar sites make up the European-wide Natura 2000 network of natural habitat and core sites for rare and threatened species. All sites in England are also designated as SSSIs.
National Nature Reserves (NNRs)
The very best SSSIs are designated as NNRs and they carry a high level of protection. There are currently 225 NNRs in England. Natural England manages about two thirds of these NNRs and the others are managed by organisations such as the National Trust, Forestry Commission, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and local authorities. The list of NNRs includes some important historic sites such as Wicken Fen and Martin Down. Natural England's web page provides more information.
Local Nature Reserves (LNRs) and Sites of Nature Conservation Interest (SINCs)
LNRs and SINCs are local sites designated by local authorities. There are some 35,000 sites and they are an important part of the network of protected sites.
MAGiC - online interactive environment information map
The free-to-access MAGiC online interactive map shows all of the above nature conservation designations and also historic environment designations and many more features like ancient woodland, chalk rivers, lowland raised bog and information on schemes. You can search by county, place or postcode.
The list of habitats and species of principal importance
As required under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 Section 41, a list of habitats and species of principal importance for the conservation of biodiversity in England is published by the Government. The list is used to guide decision-makers such as local planning authorities, grant funders, landowners and other public bodies. It originates from the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP).
There are 56 habitats. They range from habitats such as upland hay meadows to lowland mixed deciduous woodland and from freshwater habitats such as ponds to marine habitats such as subtidal sands and gravels. Many of the habitats are historic landscapes such as wood pasture and parkland. Habitat descriptions are available at the Joint Nature Conservation Committee's (JNCC) web site.
There are 943 species on the list.
Nature recovery and Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG)
It is estimated that the UK has lost almost half of its wildlife and plant species as a result of human and land development since the Industrial Revolution. In spite of species and site protection designations, there has been a 13% decline in the average abundance of wildlife in the UK since the 1970s (State of Nature report, 2019). The Government is committed to reverse the decline.
Led by Natural England, a national nature recovery network (NRN) of wildlife-rich places is being developed through local nature recovery partnerships and strategies. The NRN is underpinned by the Environment Act 2021 and its legally binding biodiversity target.
The aim of the NRN is to reverse biodiversity loss, improve the landscape's resilience to climate change, and offer health and wellbeing benefits through reconnecting people with nature. The NRN also seeks to 'reinforce the natural, geological and cultural diversity of our landscapes, and protect our historic natural environment'.
In November 2023, mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) will be introduced to deliver measurable improvements for wildlife and habitats. Under the Environment Act 2021, all planning permissions granted in England (with a few exemptions) will have to deliver at least 10% biodiversity net gain. This can be delivered on-site, off-site or via a new statutory biodiversity credits scheme. Habitats have to be secured for at least 30 years either via planning obligations or conservation covenants (voluntary agreements between a landowner and a 'responsible' body, such as a conservation charity, government body or a local authority).
Guidance on BNG:
- Defra's guidance also explains how to prepare to sell off-site biodiversity units to developers, and how to combine BNG with other environmental payments.
- Natural England's video explains the role of property owners and developers in BNG.
- The Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service provides more briefing on BNG.
There is an online habitat-based metric tool to calculate a site or area's biodiversity value and help design, plan and make management decisions on how to enhance nature recovery. The historic significance of sites and their features needs to be factored in to BNG plans whether BNG is intended to be on-site, off-site or in the biodiversity credits scheme.
Projects involving the reintroduction of species such as beavers need to follow Defra's code and guidance. Careful consideration must be given to potential impacts in historic parks and also the wider historic environment.