Natural England - Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

SACs are areas which have been given special protection under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. They provide increased protection to a variety of wild animals, plants and habitats and are a vital part of global efforts to conserve the world’s biodiversity.

What is the Habitats Directive?

The Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992) requires EU Member States to create a network of protected wildlife areas, known as Natura 2000, across the European Union. This network consists of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), established to protect wild birds under the Birds Directive (Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979). These sites are part of a range of measures aimed at conserving important or threatened habitats and species.

What is the process for designating Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)?

Each EU Member State has compiled a list of its most important wildlife areas, following criteria set out in the Habitats Directive. As the statutory advisor to Government on nature conservation, English Nature led the work to identify and consult on areas qualifying for SAC status in England. All owners and occupiers of land affected were consulted by us during this period. Once the list of candidate SACs in England was approved by the Government, it was submitted to the European Commission.

On 7 December 2004, the European Commission formally adopted the UK’s list of candidate SACs so that they became Sites of Community Importance (SCI). Following this the 236 English sites on this list were formally designated as SACs by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 1 April 2005.

The SACs have been entered in the Register of European Sites, held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and are available for public inspection. Natural England ensures that copies of the relevant register entries, together with other supporting information, are sent to landowners, occupiers and other interested parties.

How might Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) affect you?

The legal requirements relating to the designation and management of SACs in England are set out in The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (SI No. 2010/490) which supercede The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended). All terrestrial SACs in England are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The additional SAC designation is recognition that some or all of the wildlife and habitats are particularly valued in a European context.

Designation of an SAC is unlikely to greatly affect the existing management of SSSIs to conserve their biodiversity. We will work in partnership with those who own, use and manage land to secure any necessary changes in the way in which it is managed. Where necessary, we may be able to make a contribution to the costs of any special management by entering into an agreement with owners or occupiers.

Every SSSI notification contains a list of potentially damaging operations. By law, owners or occupiers must inform us in writing and obtain our permission before carrying out any of these listed operations. There is a right of appeal to Defra if permission is refused. Please remember that it is an offence to carry out notified potentially damaging operations on a SSSI without our consent or reasonable excuse. The Courts may also require restoration of any damage caused by unauthorised works. However, it is a reasonable excuse not to obtain our permission if:

  • the operation is an emergency;

  • permission has been granted via a planning application;

  • or permission has been received from another statutory/permitting regime which has consulted Natural England first.

Planning authorities can also insist that developments carried out without necessary planning permission are removed.

Natural England is duty bound to ensure that SACs are managed favourably for conservation in line with the Habitats Directive. Our experience is that it is usually possible to find mutually acceptable solutions where sustainable land use and wildlife can flourish.

Marine Special Areas of Conservation

England's SACs include areas which cover marine as well as terrestrial areas. Marine areas are not normally notified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), except in intertidal areas and estuaries. Instead we work with the various maritime authorities to ensure that activities under their control are managed appropriately.

How to find out more

The information set out here is only very general. We are always happy to discuss any concerns and to offer advice and guidance. Contact your local Natural England office.

For further information on Special Areas of Conservation and European sites see Related Articles on the right.