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

The Wash: a wetland wilderness

England is a magnet for wildfowl, waders and gulls, with an estimated five million present during winter and at times of the Spring and Autumn passage. The English populations of species such as knot, grey plover, bar-tailed godwit, pintail, Brent goose, and Bewick's swans constitute 25 per cent or more of the species' international totals. The Wash, which regularly supports 320,000 wildfowl and waders, and a further 47,000 gulls in winter, is by far the most significant site for waterbirds in Britain and is one of the most important wetlands in Europe. It is also England's largest SSSI, covering 62,000 hectares - an area larger than Greater London.

Despite its international importance for wildlife, the Wash was in a perilous state by the end of the 20th century. Years of over-fishing had contributed to a collapse of shellfish numbers, which had a severe impact on the number of wading birds, as well as the local fishing industry. Thousands of oystercatchers were found dead on the mudflats and the numbers of knots fell by tens of thousands. In 1997 the cockle fishery was closed due to a lack of stocks and the harvesting of mussels from natural beds fell to the lowest ever levels.

Since that time, dialogue between the fishing industry and conservationists has helped to establish new management policies, for example, the closure of fisheries on cockle beds that contain a significant proportion of juvenile stocks. As a result shellfish numbers returned to record levels by 2007 and today the populations of knots and oyster catchers are steadily recovering. The most recent assessment for the Wash put 68 per cent of the area in a favourable condition, and 31 per cent unfavourable but recovering.

Mat Mander, Chief Fishery Officer for the Eastern Sea Fisheries Joint Committee, said: "The development of these policies is an important milestone for the industry, natural environment and local people. Our work is already making a positive impact, enabling Natural England to change the conservation status of many parts of the SSSI, which is fantastic news and a huge step towards where we want to be in the future."

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