Introduction to the guidance manual
15. The need for fexibility in preparing conservation objectives
15.1 Variation within the UK
Favourable condition for a particular habitat, species or earth science feature cannot be defined in exactly the same way on every site. We cannot use the same suite of tightly-defined attributes and associated target values in every circumstance, as this would ignore the considerable ecological/natural variation across the UK in response to climate, geology and other variables. For example, the typical species of blanket bog in Dartmoor differ from those in the Flow Country. In addition to broad-scale ecological variation determined by factors such as climate, there is also considerable site-specific variation reflecting local factors.
Frequently, 'local distinctiveness' or broader scale variation makes a significant contribution to what is 'special' about a particular site. For example, the selection of SACs in the UK has been influenced by the requirement to represent the range of ecological variation shown by each Annex I habitat and Annex II species (McLeod et al. 2002). Similarly, when selecting SSSIs, it is often the presence of a locally uncommon species or interesting spatial patterning of vegetation that leads one site to be chosen ahead of others. It is, therefore, essential that conservation objectives incorporate site-specific characteristics and geographically-related variation when this is appropriate to the feature.
15.2 High quality features
A flexible approach to preparing conservation objectives is also needed for other reasons. For example, if target values for a particular attribute are set at a uniform level on all sites, there may be some sites containing high-quality features which are significantly above this threshold. It would not be acceptable to allow these features to decline significantly while still reporting them as being in favourable condition. In such cases, targets will need to be raised to more appropriate levels so that monitoring can act as a trigger for action to avoid deterioration to a lowest common denominator level.
Targets may also need to be modified to take account of management conflicts between different features (see section 8). In practice, the perceived problem of potential conflicts between interest features may be larger than the reality. This is not to dismiss the problem, but to urge those setting conservation objectives to consider the needs of different features in the round.
However, the need to accommodate important ecological variation within conservation objectives must be balanced by the requirement to maintain a consistent approach which allows data from different sites to be aggregated. The UK guidance has been drafted with this in mind. The most important principle here is that variation must be considered within the context of the ecology of each interest feature. Locally distinctive characteristics of biological sites determined by unusual geology should certainly be reflected in the conservation objectives for the features on that site.
15.3 Species poor sites
Some sites are naturally species poor. For example, on some heathland sites it is very difficult to find more than one grass and one forb. In these cases, conservation objectives will have to set target values that are lower than in the standard guidance. It would be illogical to require more species present than is naturally the case, but equally it would be inappropriate to reduce the generic target for the habitat because of a few sites. This is likely to be the exception rather than the rule, and if lower targets are set, they should be checked with a relevant specialist and an audit trail of the decisions made.
15.4 Flexibility
Some attributes have been defined at a broad level. For example, many habitats have an attribute for the frequency of 'typical' species. Representative lists of appropriate species are usually provided, but the selection of species on any particular site will need to reflect site-specific characteristics.
There is considerable discretion in setting targets for most attributes. For many attributes, guidance is provided on the range of values which would generally be considered acceptable for a feature to be in favourable condition. The target which will be used on any particular site will usually be a subset within this range, and will be determined by site-specific issues. Quality control to check that the guidance is being properly applied will however be necessary to ensure that we do have a common standard.
15.5 Indicators of local distinctiveness
Local variation can also be addressed by including additional attributes ('indicators of local distinctiveness') which describe important site-specific facets of the interest feature. The choice of suitable site-specific attributes is extremely wide. The following are likely to be particularly useful:
  1. the presence of notable fauna and flora, e.g. local rarities and distinctive species assemblages (in addition to species and assemblages which are notified features in their own right);
  2. spatial patterning of vegetation, including transition zones and habitat mosaics;
  3. distinctive structural and physical characteristics (e.g. patches of bare ground important for invertebrates, ponds and streams, veteran trees).


This approach is recommended for habitat and Earth science features, but will be of limited application for species features. Note that this approach is only advocated where it helps to determine the quality of the notified feature on a citation. It must not be used as an excuse for making assessments of features that are not notified (see section 6.1).