Protective Measures for UK Freshwater Habitats


Conventions and legislation

A number of International Conventions, European Directives and pieces of National Legislation apply to UK freshwater habitats.  Amongst the most important are:

These have been instrumental in the design of the following biodiversity strategies, priority habitat lists, and site-based designations.


Biodiversity Strategies

The UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework sets out priorities for biodiversity conservation activities at a UK-level. Additional priorities are set out in the Country Biodiversity Strategies for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The main objectives of these strategies are to:

  • halt and reverse previous biodiversity loss through targeted actions
  • increase awareness, understanding, enjoyment and engagement with biodiversity conservation
  • restore and enhance biodiversity through better planning, design and practice
  • ensure biodiversity is taken into account in wider decision-making
  • ensure knowledge on biodiversity is available to policy makers and practitioners

These high-level strategies largely succeeded the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP), which operated from 1992 until 2012.


Priority habitats

Statutory lists of habitats of priority or principal importance for biodiversity conservation exist for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These are largely based on the UK BAP priority habitats list. This includes six freshwater habitats:

  • Aquifer-fed naturally fluctuating water bodies
  • Eutrophic standing waters
  • Mesotrophic lakes
  • Oligotrophic and Dystrophic Lakes
  • Ponds
  • Rivers


Site-based designations


Special Areas of Conservation

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are strictly protected sites designated under the EU Habitats Directive. They contribute to the Natura 2000 Network, which consists of a series of high-quality nature reserves spread across the European Union. A total of about 177 SACs, covering an area of around 37,250 ha, have been designated to represent eight UK freshwater habitat types listed under Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive. Information on individual UK SACs can be found in the UK SAC information spreadsheet. These were selected according to various SAC selection criteria and principles.


Sites/Areas of Special Scientific Interest

SSSI/ASSIs are the fundamental statutory mechanism for protecting sites of ecological and geological interest in the UK. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) apply in England, Scotland and Wales, whilst Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) apply in Northern Ireland. Legal responsibility for notifying and protecting such sites lies with the relevant statutory nature conservation agency in each country. The SSSI/ASSI series is intended to form a representative network covering the full range of wild flora and fauna, and especially those types and individual sites that are of greatest value to nature conservation. Detailed Guidelines for the selection of biological SSSIs are available specifically for freshwater habitats


The table below shows the extent of notified river habitat in SSSIs in England only. Comparable data was not available for other UK countries.


Amount of habitat with SSSIs

Total area of habitat

% of habitat within SSSIs

Standing waters

20,458ha >50,000ha <41%

Rivers and streams

2,500km 136,000km 6%
Canals 154km 2,624km 2%

(created from data in The State of the Natural Environment (2008) report)