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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 23:30 GMT
'More funds needed' for scientific sites
R Wakely / English Nature Parley Common SSSI, Dorset
Endangered SSSI in Dorset [R Wakely/English Nature]
By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

More money should be spent on finding out what is damaging Britain's Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a report released on Wednesday says.

It would be a tragedy if we lost more sites

Professor John Pickett, report chairman
The Royal Society, Britain's academy of science, says that it makes economic sense to research the causes of damage to SSSIs so that further decline can be prevented.

"You can re-establish a site but it's better to preserve it in original form - replacing plants and animals is not the way forward," the report's chairman, Professor John Pickett, told BBC News Online.

The Royal Society report says that although scientists often monitor SSSIs, there is no formal way for them to feed their findings back to the official bodies.

Overlooked organisms

Professor Pickett added: "If there isn't more funding, sites will continue to deteriorate, we won't know why and we won't be able to take economic remedial action," he said. "It would be a tragedy if we lost more sites.

What is an SSSI?
Site of special scientific interest
Main site protection measure in UK
Can be proposed by anyone
Designated by law
Monitored by statutory bodies
Range from Bowland Fells, Lancs (16,002.3 hectares / 61.78 square miles)
to Horse Field, Gilling, North Yorks (2.1 hectares / 5.19 acres)
"We need to be more vigilant in recording damage and we need to be doing research which explains how it might be occurring.

There are three nature conservation agencies with a duty to monitor SSSIs: the Countryside Council for Wales, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions co-ordinates policy nationally.

And while sites are often designated because they are home to relatively large and well-known creatures like birds, molluscs or big insects, other organisms are sometimes overlooked:

"There are far fewer cases of designations for less well-known groups such as fungi, soil micro-organisms and smaller invertebrates, although these groups may have a profound role in the ecosystem," the report says.

Better condition

But Professor Pickett says the news about SSSIs is by no means all bad - new legislation was passed as the report was being compiled.

English Nature Fal Estuary SSSI, Cornwall
A polluted salt marsh in Cornwall [R Wakely / English Nature]
"It's a move in the correct direction: towards greater statutory powers for the preservation of the natural environment," he said.

And though 54 sites were damaged last year, their overall condition is better than expected.

"When we started the report we expected to find a lot worse a situation than we did.

'More resources'

"We expected people to be looking after the odd flower, reptile or amphibian, but instead whole habitats are being preserved," he said.

But in the end, the report is looking to the government.

"The three conservation agencies in England, Scotland and Wales are doing a good job, but they must be given the resources to report new and continuing damage that is occurring on their sites each year.

"The government should fund research into the causes of this damage and identify possible solutions," he added.

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