Summer 2003

SSSI, SAC, SPA & Ramsar, What's it all about?

The Nature Conservation Interest of the Sefton Coast and the Ribble Estuary.

Article by Janette Easton, English Nature

The Sefton Coast is one of the most designated sites in the UK. It is designated as a SSSI, cSAC, SPA and Ramsar site, but what does this actually mean and why have they been designated.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
There are over 4000 SSSIs in England, covering about 6% of the land area. SSSIs are national designations that give legal protection to a defined area. The Sefton Coast and the Ribble Estuary are both SSSIs which means they have been notified and are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

The SSSI designation indicates that the site is of national importance in its own right for biological and geomorphological interests; and is a key site representing main habitat types in Great Britain.

Ribble Estuary SSSI
The Ribble Estuary SSSI consists of an extensive area of intertidal sand-silt flats with one of the largest areas of grazed salt marsh in Britain. The site also includes an area of unimproved grazing marsh and a number of small pastures, uncommon in North West England. A large variety of wetland plants are found within these marshes.

The estuary is important for passage and wintering waterfowl. It is a major link in the chain of estuaries down the west coast of Britain which are used by birds on migration, moving between the breeding grounds in the far north and their wintering grounds further south. The salt marsh and unimproved grazing marsh support important breeding bird communities. The grazing marsh also forms an important high tide roost for waterfowl.

Sefton Coast SSSI
The Sefton Coast SSSI is of special interest for its intertidal mud and sandflats, embryonic shifting dunes, mobile dunes, fixed dunes, dune slacks, dune grasslands and dune heath.

Populations of wintering waterfowl and waders make use of the foreshore areas whilst other species of note including the sand lizard Lacerta agilis, natterjack toad Bufo calamita and great-crested newt Triturus cristatus, all found within the dunes. These species are considered to be of community interest and are therefore given strict protection, along with the populations of the sandhill rustic moth Luperina nickerlii gueneei, a Red Data Book species.

The collection of plants along the coast is exceptional, particular noteworthy species include the nationally rare grey hair grass Corynephorus canescens, nationally scarce liverwort Petalophyllum ralfsii and nationally rare moss Bryum neodamense.

Active processes known as coastal geomorphology are occurring on the coast, these processes are special features too. They mainly relate to the large mobile dune system and the many sand bars that are found on the beach. By protecting these dynamic processes and allowing them to function naturally will help to secure a healthy environment in the future.

European and other international designations
As well as national designations the Ribble Estuary and Sefton Coast are classified as European and international sites, known as Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar Site and the Sefton Coast candidate Special Area of Conservation (cSAC).

Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area (SPA)
The Ribble and Alt Estuaries SPA qualifies under the Birds Directive and is of special importance within Britain and in Europe for supporting a range of wildfowl and wader species which use the site as a wintering area and as a staging post during spring and autumn migration. The capacity of the site to support these large numbers of birds comes from the rich food resources available in the tidal flats and the secure roost sites provided by the fringing salt marshes and sand dunes. No other UK site holds as many wintering waterfowl as the Ribble and Alt Estuaries. The SPA supports on average 340,000 waterfowl. The site also supports more species present in internationally important numbers than any other in the UK. Of these species bar-tailed godwit, wigeon, grey plover, knot and sanderling are present on the Ribble and Alt in greater numbers than anywhere else in the UK.

The areas of salt marsh provide important feeding habitat for pink-footed geese, teal, wigeon and pintail. Roost sites for waders and some wildfowl are also found on areas of sandflat, at various locations along the length of the coast.

European marine site
The Ribble and Alt Estuaries SPA includes both marine areas (ie. land covered continuously or intermittently by tidal waters) and land which is not subject to tidal influence. The marine part of the SPA is termed a European marine site. The seaward boundary of the European marine site is the same as with that of the SPA. The landward boundary of the European marine site is where is defined by the limit of the marine habitats (the highest astronomical tide mark, HAT).

Ribble and Alt Estuaries Ramsar site
The Ribble and Alt Estuaries Ramsar site qualifies under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance. On the whole the bird interest features for the Ramsar site are the same as those for the Ribble and Alt Estuaries SPA. It also qualifies for supporting up to 40% of the British population of the natterjack toad Bufo calamita.

Sefton Coast candidate Special Area of Conservation (cSAC)
The Sefton Coast qualifies under the Habitats Directives as a cSAC because it hosts six features of European importance which are:-

i) fixed dunes with herbaceous vegetation (grey dunes)
ii) embryonic shifting dunes
iii) shifting dunes along the shoreline with Ammophila arenaria
iv) dunes with creeping willow
v) humid dune slacks
vi) EU-Atlantic decalcified fixed dunes (Calluno-Ulicetea)
vii) the liverwort, petalwort Petalophyllum ralfsii
viii) great-crested newt Triturus cristaus.

This European designation covers animals, plants and habitats and provides them with increased protection and management.

Hopefully this has provided a brief insight into the policy behind nature conservation designations on the Sefton Coast.

The UK Government have set a Public Service Agreement (PSA) target for 95% of SSSIs to be in favourable or recovering condition by 2010. In October 2003 English Nature will be launching a report on the condition of SSSIs in England. Both the Sefton Coast and Ribble Estuary have been assessed against set criteria, the full results will be published later this year in the Coastlines winter edition and will also be available on the English Nature website.