Calf Hey Reservoir, west of Haslingden. Photo: Natural England

Calf Hey Reservoir, west of Haslingden. Photo: Natural England

A large area of moorland in upland northern England has just gained special legal protection for its environment.

Natural England’s designation of 76 sq km of the West Pennines moors is the largest new site of special scientific interest to be established for 12 years.

The land, between Chorley, Blackburn, Bolton and Haslingden in Lancashire and Greater Manchester, is nationally important for its wildlife and habitats.

The moors are significant for their combination of upland habitats, moorland fringe grasslands and woodland, which support a large array of breeding birds. Merlin, curlew, snipe, lapwing and redshank nest in the area and there are large breeding colonies of both black-headed and Mediterranean gulls.

James Cross, chief executive of Natural England, the Government’s advisory body on the outdoors, said: “This is a significant moment for the protection of wildlife across a wild and beautiful expanse of north-west England.

“Our upland landscapes provide vital wildlife habitats and clean water, reduce flood risk and bring enjoyment and a sense of wellbeing to millions of people.”

The West Pennine Moors provide a backdrop to the surrounding towns and the wild, open spaces have been enjoyed by generations of locals and visitors alike. The hills also provide clean drinking water for thousands of households and their ability to store water plays a vital role in reducing flood risk in urban areas downstream.

Natural England said it will work with owners and land managers to continue to protect and enhance the wildlife importance of the area, while maximising the other benefits from the moors. This includes sensitive management of blanket bogs through careful grazing by cattle or sheep, and maintaining water levels at or around the surface of the peat to make sure the habitat is at its healthiest.

A spokesperson said: “Bogs in good condition provide many benefits including increased water storage in the upper catchments to reduce flood risk downstream, creating long-term carbon storage, as well as providing a unique habitat for wildlife.

“Other traditional management activity, such as cutting meadows for hay rather than silage and sensitive grazing of species-rich grasslands, supports a greater variety of wildlife and creates a more diverse landscape.

“SSSI status will help secure the widest possible commitment to the conservation of the West Pennines and lead to further action to secure the future of this moorland landscape.”

Sites of Special Scientific Interest safeguard England’s most important areas for wildlife and geology. They receive legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and there is a legal process to designate a site.

Black-headed gulls breed in the area

Black-headed gulls breed in the area

Under this process Natural England must notify all landowners and occupiers of any land in an SSSI. It also has to notify the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, relevant local planning authorities and other public bodies such as the Environment Agency and water companies.

Once Natural England has issued the notification of an SSSI, the site is legally protected. Following notification, owners, occupiers and interested parties have four months in which to make representations or objections. Within nine months of the notification date, Natural England has to decide whether or not to confirm the notification.

Landowners, occupiers and interested parties now have four months in which to make representations or objections to Natural England, who will then decide whether or not to confirm the notification for this area of the West Pennines.

Mr Cross said: “Conservation is not about holding things back, but about moving them forward.

“The outcome Natural England wishes to achieve with this designation is sustainably conserving a wonderful upland landscape and safeguarding the services it offers for the benefit of both people and the environment.”

Mike Burke, Natural England’s area manager for Cheshire to Lancashire said: “The West Pennine moors are truly special and wholly warrant this SSSI status.

“It confers special legal protection and recognises the national scientific importance of its mosaic of upland habitats and populations of breeding birds. We will continue to work with all farmers, landowners and conservation groups across the area over the coming weeks and months to explain the importance of this designation and agree how we can work together to protect the area now and in the future.”