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C1. Protected areas

a. Total extent of protected areas: on land

b. Total extent of protected areas: at sea

c. Condition of Areas/Sites of Special Scientific Interest


Extent – Response Indicator; 

Condition – State/Response Indicator

Indicator Description

This indicator shows the extent of UK protected areas both on land and at sea. The two extent measures are a calculation of the net (non-overlapping) extent of protected areas using mean high water as the boundary between the on-land and at-sea measures.

The indicator also shows the condition of terrestrial and coastal features on Areas or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (A/SSSIs). A/SSSIs are designated for their ‘features’ – habitats or species which give them their scientific interest. Each country in the UK assesses the condition of features and reports either the area or the number of features in favourable or unfavourable-recovering condition. These assessments are converted to percentages in this indicator, to allow them to be combined, but the percentage does not equate exactly to the area that is favourable or unfavourable-recovering.


  1. Summary


The total extent of land and sea protected in the UK through national and international protected areas, and through wider landscape designations, has increased by 7.4 million hectares, from 21.2 million hectares (ha) in December 2014 to 28.6 million hectares at the end of May 2019 (Figure C1i).

This increase is almost entirely down to the designation of inshore and offshore marine sites under the European Union (EU) Habitats Directive, the designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in English, Welsh, and Northern Irish waters, and designation of Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (NCMPA) in Scottish waters. The extent of protected areas on land has increased by 11,200 hectares since 2014.

The percentage of features, or area, of Areas or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (A/SSSIs) in favourable or unfavourable-recovering condition increased from 67% in 2005, to 86% in 2014, and remained stable at 85% in 2019 (Figure C1ii). The proportion of features or area of land in unfavourable-recovering condition (the light blue part of Figure C1ii) has increased from 14% in 2005 to 35% in 2019. These changes reflect improved management of sites, but may also be affected by a greater number of sites/features having been assessed over time.

Figure C1i. Extent of UK nationally and internationally important protected areas: (a) on land and (b) at sea, 1950 to 2019.


  1. The boundary between protected areas on land and at sea is mean high water (mean high water spring in Scotland). Coastal sites in the indicator are split between ‘on land’ and ‘at sea’ if they cross the mean high water mark. At-sea extent includes offshore marine protected areas out to the limit of the UK continental shelf. The area of UK sea is calculated at 88,613 million hectares.
  1. Based on calendar year of site designation. For 2019, the data cut-off is 31 May. The calculation method and projection of spatial areas has changed since the last publication of this indicator (2018); these data are therefore not directly comparable to those presented in previous publications (see the ‘Indicator description, Extent’ section for further details).
  1. Extent is based on the following site designations: Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Northern Ireland), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England, Scotland and Wales), National Nature Reserves, Marine Conservation Zones, Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas, Ramsar Sites, Special Areas of Conservation (including candidate Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Community Importance), Special Protection Areas, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Scenic Areas, National Parks.

Source: Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage.

Figure C1ii. Cumulative proportion of Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Northern Ireland) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England and Scotland) in ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable-recovering’ condition, 2005 to 2019.

A stacked bar chart showing how the cumulative proportion of Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Northern Ireland) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England and Scotland) in ‘favourable’ and ‘unfavourable-recovering’ condition have changed between 2005 and 2019. The proportion of areas/sites in favourable condition has fallen slightly from 53.7% in 2005 to 50.3% in 2019, whereas the proportion in unfavourable-recovering condition has increased from 13.7% to 34.7% over the same time period.


  1. England figures based on area. Scotland and Northern Ireland figures based on number of features. 
  2. Based on data to the end of March, except in 2006 and 2008, when data are to end of December. Data were not collated in 2007.
  3. Imputation has been used to calculate the breakdown between favourable and unfavourable-recovering for Northern Ireland for the years 2009 to 2011.
  4. Figures exclude condition of A/SSSIs notified for geological features only.

Source: Natural England, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage.

Assessment of change in extent and condition of UK protected areas


Long term

Short term

Latest year

Total extent of protected areas:
on land



No change (2019)

Total extent of protected areas:
at sea



Increased (2019)

Condition of A/SSSIs.



No change (2019)

Note: Assessment of this indicator is based on comparison of latest data point with a 3-year average from the baseline, using the three earliest consecutive years available. See ‘Assessing Indicators’ for details.



Download the Fiche, Datasheet and Technical background document from the JNCC Resource Hub

Last updated: September 2019

Latest data available:  

Extent data (C1a and C1b) – 31 May 2019

Condition data (C1c) – 31 March 2019



UK Biodiversity Indicators 2019

Published: .

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