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SBI Guidelines: Introduction


Sites of Biological Importance (SBIs) were first identified and listed in Staffordshire during the first County Habitat Survey of 1979-84 and since this time have been the main system for identifying and monitoring sites of local conservation importance. In the past, these sites were selected by the Staffordshire Grading Committee, a panel of experts representing Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, English Nature, Staffordshire County Council and the Potteries Museum.

With increased knowledge and with conservation becoming more mainstream there is a need to rationalise the selection procedure by adding set guidelines so that it can stand up to close scrutiny e.g. in a Public Inquiry.

This document aims to produce clear guidance so that the selection of County Wildlife Sites is as objective as possible.


These guidelines are intended to apply to Staffordshire excluding the Peak Park and Stoke-on-Trent. In the Peak Park, different mechanisms for the identification and protection of land of nature conservation value apply. Stoke-on-Trent has its own site system which is run by the City Council. These are referred to as Natural Heritage Sites and are equivalent to SBIs. This designation has been set up separately because the City Council has unitary status.


Staffordshire is a midland county situated to the north of the centre of England. Its greatest length from north to south is about 90 kilometres and its extreme width from east to west is nearly sixty kilometres. Staffordshire covers two thousand seven hundred square kilometres.

Staffordshire has three well-defined physical regions: the northern hills, the central plain and the southern plateau. The hill country is divided by a series of parallel rivers that flow from northwest to southeast directly into the Trent or into the Dove, which joins the Trent on the Derbyshire border. The central plain is a low lying tract of land watered by the River Trent, which rises on the moors near Biddulph and sweeps eastwards in a great curve. The southern plateau protrudes like a wedge into the central plain and rises to its highest point on Cannock Chase. The topography is such that nearly the whole of Staffordshire is in the catchment area of the Trent. The main exception is the southwest of the county, which is in the Severn catchment.

Nature Conservation Resource

There is no entirely 'natural' habitat left in Staffordshire as it has all been influenced to some extent by human activity. Most has been heavily modified, for example, agriculturally improved grassland, arable fields and conifer plantations. These habitats often support only a limited range of plant and animal species and so have low biodiversity.

The habitats which usually support greatest biodiversity are those which have a long history of low intensity management. These are referred to as semi-natural habitats; within Staffordshire these include:

  • Broadleaved Woodland
  • Wood-pasture and parkland
  • Hedgerows
  • Grasslands
  • Heathland
  • Standing water
  • Streams and rivers
  • Wetlands

Most of the remaining semi-natural habitat in Staffordshire occurs within designated nature conservation sites, which are described below.

Other habitats that are considered in the guidelines include traditionally farmed land and previously developed sites. Although these are not regarded as semi-natural habitats, they often support assemblages of important species, such as farmland birds.

Nature Conservation Site System

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are the finest sites for wildlife and natural features, supporting many characteristic, rare and endangered species, habitats and natural features. The purpose of SSSIs is to safeguard for present and future generations a series of sites that are individually of high natural heritage importance. They make a vital contribution to the ecological processes upon which we all depend.

The SSSIs cover approximately 8% of England, and alone they cannot fulfil national biodiversity and geological targets. Many SSSIs are small and isolated, and have to be managed as an integral part of the surrounding landscape. Conservation action is required throughout England if wildlife and natural features are to flourish and enrich our lives. Supportive land use and sustainable development policies, and active conservation management, are vital to the well-being of SSSIs. The majority of SSSIs are privately owned, and those in a favourable condition owe their continued importance to the way in which their owners and occupiers have managed and cared for them.

Selecting and designating SSSIs under Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (as amended) is a key function of the Council of English Nature, whose members are appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Sites are selected after detailed scientific survey and evaluation against published guidelines.

Within the area covered by the Staffordshire Biodiversity Action Plan there are 57 SSSIs of which eight are notified purely for their geological features. The biological SSSIs cover some 3900 ha, 1.5% of area.

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are sites of European importance designated under the Habitats Regulations[1] that implement the Habitats Directive[2]. All sites designated under this European legislation are already SSSIs and in the Biodiversity Action Plan area include Cannock Chase, Cannock Extension Canal, Chartley Moss, Mottey Meadows, Pasturefields Salt Marsh and the River Mease.

Ramsar Sites are designated under the terms of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Again, all sites are also SSSIs and include Aqualate Mere, Betley Mere, Black Firs & Cranberry Bog, Chartley Moss and Cop Mere. There are four National Nature Reserves within the Plan area, all being managed by English Nature. A further eight SSSIs are partly or wholly managed by the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust as nature reserves.

Sites of County Biological Importance and Biodiversity Alert Sites (SBIs and BASs)

These are sites of local importance and contain most of the best remaining areas of semi-natural habitat in the county. The terminology in Staffordshire for local wildlife sites including Sites of Biological Importance and Biodiversity Alert Sites has evolved over twenty-five years. A clear description of the different terms is set out in Appendix 1.

Sites were selected as the result of a series of County Habitat Surveys, carried out between 1979 and 1984 with resurveys between 1995 and 2004. The surveys and resurveys were designed to identify and evaluate the best remaining areas of semi-natural vegetation within Staffordshire, together with as much information as possible about their associated fauna. In the past, selection was carried out on similar guidelines to those employed by English Nature for the selection of SSSIs, only applied less rigorously, and on a county rather than a regional or national basis. The grading has not until now followed written guidelines, but has rather been based on the collective experience of the grading committee. This committee consists of representatives from Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, English Nature, Staffordshire County Council, the Environment Agency and the Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent.

The series of sites within Staffordshire are ranked into two categories of value, namely Sites of Biological Importance and Biodiversity Alert Sites. Sites of Biological importance are sites of ‘substantive nature conservation value’ in a County context and are given a degree of protection through the planning system. Biodiversity Alert Sites are sites of local rather than County importance. These sites have some nature conservation value and have the potential to be of ‘substantive nature conservation value’ through appropriate management. This designation helps target land management advice to bring new sites into the SBI system.

Information on all these sites is held by the County Council, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and the Potteries Museum, these bodies have co-operated in servicing, monitoring and updating the record system to date. In 2001, a partnership of these organisations was formed to manage data on habitats and species, including SBIs. This partnership is known as Staffordshire Ecological Record and employs an Ecological Records Officer.

The grading system for local wildlife sites within Staffordshire may be described as follows:

"Sites of Biological Importance (previously Grade 1 SBIs)

Generally these sites are the best remaining examples within the County of habitats which rate highly on the basis of such factors as naturalness, diversity, or rarity of species or communities. These sites are frequently the remnants of larger areas of semi-natural vegetation, which may not be either sufficiently extensive or undisturbed to warrant SSSI status, but they are important examples of characteristic or notable vegetation types or habitat complexes, sometimes with associated dependant plant or animal species. As such, they provide an invaluable complement to the SSSIs and contribute the most significant element in the County’s nature conservation resource, most of which is irreplaceable in the event of loss or damage.

Biodiveristy Alert Sites (previously Grade 2 Sites)

These sites are of lesser significance on a County basis, because of lower intrinsic quality, smaller size or damage or disturbance. Nevertheless they collectively form a significant part of the County’s nature conservation resource, and in some cases a valuable ‘reserve series’ for some of the Sites of Biological Importance.

The degree of protection merited by each site needs to be assessed on an individual basis and in the light of prevailing circumstances. Both SBIs and BASs contribute significantly to the maintenance of biodiversity in the wider countryside, now recognised as a major local and national objective."

Structure Plan Inquiry evidence, Roger Hill, Staffordshire County Council

Staffordshire (excluding the Peak Park) currently contains approximately 750 SBIs, covering a total of 11207 hectares (4.1% of the total land area). Since the 1995-2000 re-survey the number of sites has fallen, due to sites being destroyed or downgraded or to the recent policy of combining adjacent SBIs into one large site.

The list of SBIs is not exhaustive and there are also likely to be a number of other sites that may be of SBI standard, but have not been recognised. These may be sites that have not yet been surveyed, or sites that have not yet been incorporated into the data system.

Policy background

In England, the policy framework for planning control is provided by the development plan system. In Staffordshire this comprises the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Structure Plan 1996-2011, together with subject-based local plans for minerals and waste (prepared by the County and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils) and district-wide local plans prepared by the eight district local authorities within the County.

The Structure Plan provides a broad planning framework in the form of a comprehensive, sustainable strategy relating to land-use, transportation and the environment. Included in this are a series of policies and proposals for safeguarding and enhancing the County’s natural and cultural assets. Among these policies there are 13 that have a direct or indirect bearing on nature conservation. Perhaps the most significant of these policies (NC6) refers to important semi-natural habitats as follows:

"In considering or formulating proposals for development or land use change, planning authorities will ensure, wherever possible, that damage to important semi-natural habitats or other features or sites of significant nature conservation or geological value is avoided. Particular care will be taken to safeguard and consolidate the integrity of linear and other landscape features which are of major importance for wild fauna and flora. Where damage is unavoidable, measures to mitigate or compensate through establishment of replacement habitat or features should be taken, wherever possible."

The 13 policies in the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Structure Plan 1996-2011 are supplemented by more specific policies relating to individual sites and specific habitats of nature conservation importance, and to the safeguard of legally protected species.

The Structure Plan Policies are in turn developed, as appropriate, in the various district-wide local plans, and in the subject-based local plans, for example in relation to mineral working and restoration. Local Plans also contain specific policies, which refer to protection of sites, species and habitats outside legally designated sites (SSSIs etc.). For details of these policies it is advised that enquirers refer to the current copy of the relevant Plan or Plans.

Government guidance (Planning Policy Guidance no. 9) indicates that there is a clear need to recognise and identify the County’s important nature conservation sites, species and features.

"Structure plans

22. Structure plans and part I of unitary development plans set out general policies and proposals on key strategic issues, taking account of the appropriate published national and regional policy guidance. They should identify key sites of nature conservation importance, such as SSSIs, NNRs, SPAs, SACs and Ramsar sites, to establish a strategic framework and exemplify the particular characteristics of nature conservation interest in the plan area in their national and international context. Policies to be applied to these sites should reflect their relative significance ……, and place particular emphasis on the protection of internationally important sites………."

"Local plans

24. Local plans and part II of unitary development plans should identify relevant international, national and local nature conservation interests. They should ensure that the protection and enhancement of those interests is properly provided for in development and land-use policies, and place particular emphasis on the strength of protection afforded to international designations. Plans should offer reasonable certainty to developers, landowners and residents alike about the weight that will be given to nature conservation interest in reaching planning decisions. Nature conservation issues should be included in the surveys of local authority areas required by sections 11 and 30 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to ensure that plans are based on fully adequate information about local species, habitats, geology and landform. Plans should be concerned not only with designated areas but also with other land of nature conservation value…… and the possible provision of new habitats………"

This guidance indicates that there is a need to protect and maintain natural and semi-natural habitats of nature conservation value outside of statutory designated sites to sustain the variety of important habitats and species within the UK. The importance of this is reflected in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan where a number of key habitats in Staffordshire are listed.

Table 1: UK Biodiversity Action Plan Habitat types in Staffordshire

SBI Habitat Types UK BAP Broad Habitat Type UK Key Habitats in Staffordshire from UK BAP NVC Community Types
Woodlands Broad-leaved, mixed and Yew Woodland Lowland Beech and Yew Woodland W12, W13, W14, W15
Lowland Oak and Mixed Deciduous Woodland W8a-d, W9, W13
Upland Mixed Ash Woodland W8d-g, W9, W13
Upland Oak Woodland W10e, W11, W16b, W17
Upland Birch Woods W10e, W11, W17, W4a & b
Wet Woodland W1-3, W4c, W5-7
Pasture Woodland and Mature Timber Habitat Broad-leaved, mixed and Yew Woodland Wood Pasture and Parkland W10, W11, W14, W15, W16, W17
Boundary Features Boundary and Linear Features Hedgerows  
Grassland Calcareous Grassland Lowland Calcareous Grassland CG1-CG9
Upland Calcareous Grassland CG9-CG14
Acid Grassland Lowland Dry Acidic Grassland U1-3, U4a,c,d, SD10b & SD11b (inland examples only)
Improved Grassland Coastal and Floodplain Grazing Marsh MG9 & MG10 (in floodplain situations) MG11, MG13
Neutral Grassland Lowland Meadow MG4, MG5, MG8
Fen, Marsh & Swamp Purple Moor-Grass and Rush Pasture M22-M26
Fen and Swamp Fen, Marsh and Swamp Reedbeds S4
Lowland Fens M4-M6, M9-M11, M13
Upland Flushes, Fens & Swamps M27-29, M31-35, M37-38, S9-11 and others
Heathland Dwarf Shrub Heath Lowland Heath H4, H8-10
Upland Heath H4, H8-10, H12, H16, H18, H21, M15, M16
Peatland Sites Bogs Lowland Raised Bog M1-M3, M15
Blanket Bog M1-M3, M15, M17-M20, M25
Rivers & Streams Rivers & Streams Rivers A2, A8-9, A11-20, S4-9 and others
Ponds & Lakes Standing Open Waters & Canals Ponds OV28-35
Mixed Habitats & Structural Mosaics Built up areas & Gardens Open Mosaic Habitats on Previously Developed Land Poor NVC Fit


  1. Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 available from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1994/2716/contents/made
  2. Council Directive 92/43/EEC (Habitats Directive) (1992) available from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/legislation/habitatsdirective/
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Version 6.01 (December 2017) Copyright © Staffordshire Wildlife Sites Partnership, 2019 Last Updated: 8/04/2015