2,431,000 hectares have been notified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Great Britain, or Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) in Northern Ireland, in recognition of the wildlife, geological or geomorphological features they contain.  This represents 10% of the land area of the United Kingdom.


Furthermore, areas of land and water have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under the EC Habitats Directive (2,504,000 ha), Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the EC Birds Directive (1,482,000 ha), and Ramsar sites under the (Ramsar) Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (759,000 ha).


All these designated nature conservation areas have been selected in accordance with national selection guidelines, and are protected by national legislation.  For more information about the basis for these areas and why they are designated, see the protected sites part of the JNCC website. 


What is Common Standards Monitoring?

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee is required by statute to develop common standards throughout Great Britain for the monitoring of nature conservation and for the analysis of the resulting information.  In 1998, the Committee published A Statement on Common Standards for Monitoring Designated Sites in compliance with this duty. These common standards were piloted during 1998 and became operational in Great Britain from April 1999.  By agreement with the Environment and Heritage Service, they were also adopted for use in Northern Ireland.


The purpose of common standards monitoring is primarily threefold:

  1. at the site level, it indicates the degree to which current conservation measures are proving effective in achieving the objectives of the designation, and identifies any need for further measures;
  2. at the country level, it indicates the effectiveness of current conservation action and investment, and identifies priorities for future action;
  3. at the United Kingdom level, it enables Government to undertake its national and international reporting commitments in relation to designated sites, and more widely, and helps identify any areas of shortfall in implementation.


The basis of the common standards for site monitoring is that the condition of the feature for which the site is designated is assessed against the conservation objective for that feature. The nature conservation component which is assessed is not the site itself, but the feature (e.g. habitat, species or earth science feature) for which it was designated. Sites may have one, two or several interest features on them, and each of these is assessed separately. Conservation objectives are developed by identifying the key attributes which make up or support the feature (e.g. extent, quality, supporting processes), and setting targets for them. Each attribute is then measured and compared against the target value set. If all the targets are met, the feature is in favourable condition. Human activities which are likely to be affecting the site adversely, and the conservation measures taken to maintain or restore the site, are also recorded.


Essentially the basis of common standards monitoring is to identify the feature or features which are notified on each individual site.  Each site will have a management plan or statement which identifies the conservation objective(s) for that site.  Monitoring tests whether the objective has been met.  Figure 1 shows how the system works in practice.


Figure 1. A condensed overview of Common Standards Monitoring


Figure 1. A condensed overview of Common Standards Monitoring

Guidance on setting conservation objectives

During the pilot year, it became apparent that detailed guidance was needed in the formulation of conservation objectives and a programme of work was instituted to provide this guidance.  The guidance was developed and adopted progressively over the next few years and is published on  The introductory chapter to the guidance provides an overview of Common Standards Monitoring.  It covers the various concepts and terms, and provides the background to the guidance on setting conservation objectives, and assessing feature condition, covered in the later chapters.


Condition categories

The common standards require the condition of features to be assessed as falling into one of a number of categories; namely i) Favourable-maintained, ii) Favourable-recovered, iii) Unfavourable-recovering, iv) Unfavourable-no-change, v) Unfavourable-declining, vi) Partially-destroyed, and vii) Destroyed.


These categories describe the state of the feature at a particular point in time:

Favourable condition – the objectives for that feature are being met.

Unfavourable condition – the state of the feature is currently unsatisfactory.

Destroyed (partially or completely) – the feature is no longer present and there is no prospect of being able to restore it.


Where the feature is Favourable, it is classed as:

Maintained, i.e. it has remained favourable since the previous assessment.

Recovered, i.e. it has changed from unfavourable since the last assessment.


Where the feature is Unfavourable, a further assessment is made as to whether the state of the feature is:

Recovering, i.e moving towards the desired state.

Declining, i.e moving away from the desired state.

No-change, i.e. neither improving nor declining.


Carrying out the monitoring

In general, condition assessments should be capable of being undertaken by operational staff within the country conservation agencies. For some interest features, it may be necessary to have specialist input or to use data held by other organisations. Condition assessments will often be based on a structured walk across the site, but may also utilise other information (e.g. recent records or aerial photographs).


The intention is that every feature on every designated site in the United Kingdom should be assessed over a period of six years in a rolling monitoring cycle. Where more than one designation applies to a particular feature on a given site, a separate assessment should be made for each designation. This is because the reason for the designation, and the precise area covered, may vary between the different types of designation.


In addition to the assessment of the condition of the features, the common standards require the identification of those human activities or other factors considered to be adversely affecting the feature, and also those measures which have been taken which are considered to be beneficial towards achieving favourable condition.


Adverse activities and management measures

Human and natural impacts on a feature may assist the meeting of the conservation objectives, they may prevent them from being achieved, or they may be neutral. Human impacts may result from the management of feature or be independent of it; for example they may result from pollution originating from outside a site, or from the activities of the general public. Understanding the relationship between these impacts and the condition of features enables conclusions to be reached about what further conservation measures, or change in management, may be needed.


For this reason, Common Standards Monitoring requires information to be recorded for those impacts appearing to the assessor to be preventing the feature from achieving its conservation objectives (Adverse Activities), and those measures which are assisting the feature in reaching its objectives (Management Measures). Collating information on adverse activities and management measures helps to identify those types of activities which are having the greatest negative impact and those measures which are having the greatest benefit. This will help prioritise future conservation effort and use of resources.


A first six year cycle

Over the period 1999-2005, the Countryside Council for Wales, English Nature, Environment and Heritage Service and Scottish Natural Heritage have been systematically carrying out a programme of monitoring the designated features. This report sets out the results of this first six year monitoring cycle (plus data from the pilot year), summarising the condition of individual features under broad feature categories, and summarising also the nature of adverse activities and beneficial measures.


The Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) concentrated their effort on SACs, plus some assessments on SPAs. However, CCW did undertake a desk-based rapid assessment exercise of the condition of habitat features of SSSIs. While this did not follow the common standards methodology (and the results are, therefore, not included in any of the graphs or percentages presented in this report), it did allow for some cross-checks to be made between the condition of SSSI features in Wales with those recorded elsewhere. Broadly, the results of this CCW rapid assessment exercise for habitats showed a similar pattern to that produced for habitats through Common Standards Monitoring.