Conservation of our natural heritage began with the idea that, if we could only preserve areas of the best wildlife, all would be well – within the reserves, anyway. Over the years a confusing system of layers of wildlife protection has developed, beginning in 1949 with reserves set aside for wildlife alone, the National Nature Reserves, complemented by Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which initially had very little protection. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 improved protection for SSSI’s and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 strengthens the powers of English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales to ensure the better protection and management of SSSIs. European conservation laws (the 1979 Birds Directive followed by the Habitats Directive 1992) introduced a Europe-wide system of protection, Natura 2000, with Special Protection Areas for birds and Special Areas of Conservation for habitats and other species.
Other statutory bodies help to conserve wildlife – the National Parks, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty were introduced in 1949 to protect the countryside from inappropriate development and as such have a role to play in wildlife protection. The recognition of a developing industry in quarrying away the limestone landscape led to the introduction of Limestone Pavement Orders (1981).
The international and national tiers are administered by national bodies – English Nature administers the European designations – Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas – and also National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The Countryside Agency is responsible for the social, economic and environmental well-being of the English countryside, including identifying Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Local authorities are responsible for running these, and also establish and look after Local Nature Reserves (available since 1949) and Sites of Ecological or Geological Importance (a local planning designation, similar to a County Wildlife Site, recommended by the West Yorkshire Ecology group).
Recently the idea of conserving wildlife within reserves has become less fashionable, since the areas which can be set aside for this will never be big enough to protect a meaningful section of wildlife. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, conscious of criticism that they were financing farmers to destroy nature, turned to grant-aided packages intended to persuade landowners to manage their land with wildlife in mind. The Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme was introduced in 1987 to safeguard areas of high wildlife and landscape value. This usually means continuing to use traditional farming practices and maintaining traditional buildings, both of which are good for wildlife.
The most recent conservation review has emphasised the need for ‘wide and shallow’ conservation, instead of localising improvements. The government has now introduced the Environmental Stewardship scheme which will replace Countryside Stewardship. The Entry Level scheme is intended to to encourage a large number of farmers across a wide area of farmland to deliver simple yet effective environmental management. This will include improving farmland biodiversity, protecting historic features, maintaining landscape character and reducing diffuse pollution (e.g. soil erosion and nutrient leaching).
Special Areas of Conservation
Designated under the EC Habitats and Species Directive for the protection of habitats and (non-bird) species. SACs, with Special Protection Areas classified under the Birds Directive, will be known as the Natura 2000 network. The listed habitat types and species are those considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level. Permission for development cannot be granted unless: it can ascertain that the project would not adversely affect the integrity of the site; or if the project would adversely affect the integrity of the site or there is uncertainty over the possible effects, i. there are no alternative solutions; and ii. there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest (which are more restricted in scope if a habitat or species listed as a priority in the Habitats Directive would be affected).
Special Protection Areas
Designated under the EC Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds. Similar provisions restricting development apply as with Special Areas of Conservation.
National Nature Reserves
English Nature designates land as a National Nature Reserve, to secure protection and appropriate management of the most important areas of wildlife habitat, and to provide a resource for scientific research. NNRs are usually designated for their broader ecological value rather than for the presence of any rare species. There are however a number of sites which hold important numbers of scarce or rare species.
The only NNR in our area is Scoska Wood, which includes ash woodland and pasture.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest
Sites of Special Scientific Interest form the bedrock of our protected site network. They are the best examples of our natural heritage of wildlife habitats, geological features and landforms. An SSSI is an area that has been notified by English Nature as being of special interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 strengthens the powers of English Nature to ensure the better protection and management of SSSIs, so that: English Nature can vary existing SSSIs to take account of natural changes or new information; public bodies have a duty to further the conservation and enhancement of SSSIs; and neglected or mismanaged sites can be brought into favourable management. New offences and heavier penalties now apply to people who illegally damage SSSIs.
Owners and occupiers (ie landowners, tenants and commoners) of SSSIs must give English Nature written notice before initiating any operations likely to damage the site, or allowing someone else to carry out these activities. None of the operations listed in the notification documents may proceed without English Nature’s consent. A person is liable to a fine of up to £20,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited amount on conviction on indictment if he or she carries out, without reasonable excuse, an operation which damages the special features of an SSSI. The Courts are also empowered to make an order requiring that person to take certain actions to restore the land to its former condition. Failure to comply with such a court order may be punished by a fine of up to £5,000 and a further fine of up to £100 per day for as long as the offence continues.
Limestone Pavement Orders
Limestone pavement is a nationally rare habitat in Great Britain and we also have a larger proportion of the European habitat. The most extensive sites are in northern England, from Morecambe Bay to the Pennines. It is particularly at risk from removal for use in garden rockeries.
Although many sites containing limestone pavement have been identified and protected as SSSIs, Section 34 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 allows additional protection through the making of Limestone Pavement Orders. All significant areas of limestone pavement in England are now protected by LPOs. Once a LPO is in place, removal of rock becomes a criminal offence, unless it constitutes incidental removal in the course of other activities. Penalties match those for damage to an SSSI, at up to £20,000, or on indictment an unlimited fine. It is a reasonable excuse for a person to remove or disturb limestone if the act was authorised by a planning permission granted on application. Agricultural use of limestone from land subject to an LPO will thus require a planning application for planning consent.
The Countryside Agency designates National Parks under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. The two main purposes of the National Parks’ designation are to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of their areas, and to promote opportunities for the public understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of their areas. If there is a conflict between the two, conservation takes precedence (the ‘Sandford’ principle). In carrying out these two main responsibilities, the National Park Authority has a duty to seek to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities.
Each National Park is managed by its own National Park Authority, provided for under the Environment Act 1995. National Park Authorities are freestanding within the local government framework and are the sole local and mineral planning authority for their area. They prepare their own structure plans (except for the Broads) and local plans and are responsible for development control. Planning policies and decisions must give great weight to conservation of the natural beauty of the countryside, and major development should not take place save in exceptional circumstances.
National Parks and AONBs are both accorded protection against inappropriate development through the planning system. Proposals for any major development in one of these areas have to be demonstrated to be in the public interest before being allowed to proceed. Considerations include whether the development is needed in national terms; the impact of permitting it or refusing it on the local economy; the potential for developing elsewhere, or meeting the need in some other way; and the extent to which any detrimental effect on the landscape might be moderated.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park was designated in 1954, because of the range of wildlife, habitats, beautiful scenery and local history. It includes 1,773 square kilometres of countryside and over 20,000 residents.
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
At the same time as National Parks came into being, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty were established. The primary objective of their designation is the conservation area’s natural beauty, although many of them also fulfill a great recreational purpose. The Countryside Agency is responsible for designating AONBs and advising Government on policies for their protection. Unlike National Parks, AONBs do not have a statutory administrative framework. Planning and development control in AONBs is the responsibility of those local authorities within whose boundaries they fall.
However, recently the government has accepted that protection through the planning system is not enough to conserve these areas and active management is also needed. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 bought in new laws to help protect AONBs. Local authorities must now prepare management plans to set out how they will care for them. Special managing bodies known as Conservation Boards may also be set up. The Government has confirmed that AONBs are regarded as equal in their landscape quality to the National Parks, and equally stringent measures to protect the landscape should apply.
The Nidderdale AONB was established in 1992. It extends to 603 sq. km, and immediately adjoins the Yorkshire Dales National Park to the west. The North Yorkshire Structure Plan includes protective policies for the AONB. Policy Environment 1 states “priority will be given to the conservation of the landscapes and general amenity of the following areas: … the Nidderdale Moors (proposed) AONB…”. Proposals for large-scale developments in the open countryside will not be permitted unless proven to be in the national interest, incapable of being located outside of the AONB and the environmental impact has been fully assessed and any adverse effects minimised. Where development is permitted, the highest standards of design will be required. Other relevant policies relate to renewable energy.
England Rural Development Programme
The England Rural Development Programme provides a framework for the operation of 10 separate but integrated schemes which provide ‘opportunities to protect and improve the countryside, to develop sustainable enterprises and to help rural communities to thrive.’
Environmentally Sensitive Areas
The Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme was introduced in 1987 to offer incentives to encourage farmers to adopt agricultural practices which would safeguard and enhance parts of the country of particularly high landscape, wildlife or historic value. There are now 22 ESAs in England, covering some 10% of agricultural land.
This is an agri-environment scheme that provides funding for farmers and land managers provided they adhere to certain environmental practices, when managing their land. There are four different elements to the scheme:
- Entry Level Stewardship (ELS)
- Organic Entry Level Stewardship (OELS)
- Uplands Entry Level Stewardship (Uplands ELS)
- Higher Level Stewardship (HLS)
In 2016 this was replaced with the Countryside Stewardship (CS) Scheme.
Our area is administered by five local authorities – North Yorkshire County Council, Harrogate Borough Council, Craven District Council, Bradford City Council, and Leeds City Council. North Yorkshire, Bradford and Leeds have responsibility for nature conservation but the districts often have connected interests. The Yorkshire Dales National Park also has planning functions within its boundaries.
Local Nature Reserves
Another designation dating from the 1949 Act, Local Nature Reserves are intended as reserves for areas of local importance. They are declared by local authorities which have a legal interest in the land concerned – they may own it, lease it or have a nature reserve agreement with the owner. They should consult local communities and voluntary conservation bodies such as the Wildlife Trusts and put together outline management proposals for the site, making it clear what the long term objectives are. English Nature is notified of the LNR but is not involved in its management.
Local Nature Reserves have no formal protection but the statutory designation is an indication of the authority’s commitment to nature conservation and provides the chance to provide protection via byelaws and the planning process.
Site of Ecological or Geological Importance
Sites of Ecological or Geological Importance are areas identified by Leeds and Bradford councils as being important for their flora, fauna, geological or physiological features. This is a ‘local’ designation only – these sites are of county wide importance.
Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation
Another ‘local’ designation, used by Harrogate and North Yorkshire councils.