Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI): Protecting England's natural treasures Sites of Special Scientific Interest (NE306)

Protecting geodiversity

More than a quarter of all SSSIs are designated for their geological importance. These include unique limestone landscapes, extensive cave systems, disused quarries, and sites that preserve internationally significant fossils. The inclusion of geological sites in the target for SSSI condition has led to integrated management that has benefited both geological and biological interests.

Funding generated by a range of management agreements, including Environmental Stewardship and Conservation Enhancement Schemes, has been important in restoring many sites. At Tunstall Hills and Ryhope Cutting SSSI for example, Sunderland City Council has received Higher Level Stewardship funding to manage natural outcrops, disused quarries and an area of limestone grassland. The clearance of scrub and the removal of scree from rock faces is now helping to conserve a site rich in geological and botanical interest and provides a valuable area of green space in the midst of an urban landscape.

Many of the geological features on SSSIs have required significant engineering projects to improve their condition. Southerham Grey Pit SSSI for example, a former chalk quarry in Sussex, exposes a unique record of Cretaceous rocks. Restoration of the site required the excavation of a 200m section of rock debris.

Over the past ten years, work on many geological SSSIs has not only improved their condition and accessibility, but has lead to new research opportunities and the development of new conservation techniques. On a number of Precambrian fossil sites in the Charnwood area, for example, a ground breaking mould and cast technique has been developed to provide perfect replicas of sections which are difficult to access and sensitive to both weathering and, occasionally, vandalism.

A great many geological sites offer huge interest to the wider public, such as the Dorset coastline, which as well as being an SSSI is also recognised as a World Heritage Site (Case study: West Dorset Coast). Other sites, notably England’s extensive network of cave SSSIs are much harder to reach, but have benefited from the help of a dedicated group of enthusiasts who are combining sporting interests with that of conservation (Case study: Leck Beck Head).

The management of geological SSSIs over the past ten years has put 86 per cent in a favourable or recovering condition. However, a number of challenges exist to improving the remaining sites, including the need for further large scale engineering works. Much of the management work that has been undertaken on geological SSSIs is the result of one-off restoration projects and for the future it will be important to secure longer term management agreements, otherwise sites may revert to their original condition as scrub vegetation and loose rock encroaches on exposed geology.

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