Areas of nature conservation importance in the United Kingdom are protected under various pieces of national and international legislation.
Natura 2000 is the name of the European Union wide network of nature conservation sites. The network was established under Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and Wild Fauna and Flora (the ‘Habitats Directive). This network comprises of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
SACs are areas which have been identified as best representing the range and variety of European habitats and species (other than birds) listed in Annexes I and II to the Directive. SPAs are areas designated under the Birds Directive as the most important habitats for rare (listed on Annex I to the Directive) and migratory birds within the European Union. Both SACs and SPAs can extend into territorial waters.
The Welsh Government has indicated that in planning terms sites designated under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, agreed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, are to be treated the same as Natura 2000 sites.
Originally intended to protect sites of importance especially as waterfowl habitat, the Convention has broadened its scope over the years to cover all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use, recognising wetlands as ecosystems that are extremely important for biodiversity conservation in general and for the well-being of human communities.
On a national level Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI) have, since 1949, been evolved into a suite of sites providing statutory protection for the best examples of the UK’s flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features. These sites are also used to underpin other national and international nature conservation designations. Originally notified under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, SSSIs have been re-notified under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Improved provisions for the protection and management of SSSIs were introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (in England and Wales).
Another national designation introduced by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 was that of the National Nature Reserve (NNR). NNRs contain examples of some of the most important natural and semi-natural terrestrial and coastal ecosystems in Great Britain. They are managed to conserve their habitats or to provide special opportunities for scientific study of the habitats communities and species represented within them.
NNRs are declared by the statutory country conservation agencies under and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
All the above designations are found in the National Park.
Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006, places a duty on all public authorities in England and Wales to have regard, in the exercise of their functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity. A key purpose of this duty is to embed the consideration of biodiversity as an integral part of policy and decision making throughout the public sector.
Under the requirement set out in section 42 of the Act, the Welsh Government has published a list of the types of habitat which, in its opinion, are of principal importance for the purpose of conserving biodiversity in Wales.