Official inspections by Natural England at the county’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) found conditions at 50 per cent of them to be unsatisfactory.
SSSIs are protected areas for nature conservation and can cover anything from breeding grounds for rare species to peatland.
In West Sussex, several harbours, beaches, estuaries, forests and parks have earned the designation from Natural England – including Cissbury Ring north of Worthing and Amberley Wildbrooks near Pulborough.
SSSIs in England are divided into units, which are monitored and assessed as either being favourable – which means they are in a healthy state and are being conserved by appropriate management – or unfavourable, meaning they are in an unsatisfactory state.
Of the 414 assessed units in West Sussex, 207 have been categorised as unfavourable, analysis from JPIMedia’s data unit has found.
While many SSSIs are privately-owned or managed, others are cared for by public bodies or non-governmental organisations.
The figures for West Sussex mirror the picture across England.
There are 4,111 SSSIs in England, divided into 21,359 separate units. Of these, 53 per cent have been rated ‘unfavourable’ (11,306).
Guidelines state SSSI features should be assessed at least every six years, but analysis found more than half of the sites (58 per cent) have not been assessed since 2011.
Findings are ‘shocking’
Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said: “It’s shocking that our top wildlife sites are in such poor condition.
“The failure to protect and restore these vital nature havens has been going on for far too long.
“The number of SSSIs recorded as being in decent condition has been hovering around the 50 per cent mark for a decade or more.
“If we can’t even protect the jewels in the crown, it’s little wonder that UK nature is in such poor shape.
“The new government must make the protection and restoration of our natural environment a top priority.”
Kate Jennings, the RSPB’s head of site conservation policy, said the current state of SSSI’s was ‘shocking’.
She said: “Many have not been assessed for years so the actual picture may in fact be worse.
“If our governments are serious about tackling the climate and nature emergencies we need a huge step change in action, and it needs to happen now.”
Nikki Williams, The Wildlife Trust’s director of campaigns and policy, called for statutory agencies Natural England and the Environment Agency to receive ‘substantial increases in their funding to enable them to carry out their functions effectively’ and to ‘ensure our protected sites are restored and enhanced, contributing to a Nature Recovery Network and a wilder future’.
This newspaper spoke to some of the landowners of West Sussex’ beauty spots to find out what work was underway to improve conditions.
Hopes for improved rating at Cissbury Ring
‘Excellent progress’ has been made in improving part of a north Worthing beauty spot which had been rated unfavourable, according to the National Trust.
Cissbury Ring, a much-loved walking destination which falls within the boundaries of the Adur, Arun and Worthing districts, is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and split into four units, three of which have been rated unfavourable.
Two of the units are owned by the National Trust.
Of these, one is in favourable condition and while the other has been rated unfavourable, Charlie Cain, National Trust area ranger, said there had been a lot of ‘hard work’ to improve its condition.
He said: “This unit was last assessed in July, 2013, and the issues highlighted then were under-grazing as a result of a lack of water for grazing animals on the site, which has always been an issue due to the height of the site.
“Since that last assessment we have restored grazing, with New Forest ponies, following a scheme to install water troughs.
“With this grazing, alongside some volunteer-supported scrub clearance, there has been some excellent progress in improving the condition and we are seeing a recovery in species such as Adonis and Chalkhill Blue butterflies there.
“Natural England will re-assess at some point and we hope that there will be an improvement in the rating, following this hard work.”
Describing the land at Cissbury Ring, Mr Cain said centuries of continuous grazing had produced ‘a wonderful habitat for butterflies and flowers’.
Rare plants, such as the round headed rampion, known as the ‘Pride of Sussex’, also thrive at the chalk grassland.
Mr Cain said the National Trust worked closely with Natural England and that its work at the site was part-funded by the Higher Level Stewardship scheme.
He said: “We want to work together at a landscape scale, with all our partners and communities at Cissbury Ring, as this is our best chance to care for this remarkable landscape and find solutions to conserve nature and heritage for future generations.”
Conditions are recovering at Amberley Wildbrooks
Elsewhere in the county, the Amberley Wildbrooks SSSI is a lowland grazing marsh adjacent to the River Arun in Pulborough, which falls within both the Chichester and Horsham district.
The SSSI designation covers land owned by the RSPB, private land owners and the Sussex Wildlife Trust, which owns The Amberley Wildbrooks Nature Reserve.
Dan Ross, director of land management at Sussex Wildlife Trust, said the land was an active floodplain during heavy rainfall and was drained via a network of ditches throughout the site.
Within these ditches was a good diversity of flowers, including one nationally rare plant cut grass leersia oryzoides, as well as several uncommon insects such as the lesser whirlpool ramshorn snail anisus vorticulus and downy emerald dragonfly cordulia aenea.
Amberley Wildbrooks also provides important habitat for wintering and breeding birds including a nationally significant number of overwintering teal, shoveler and Bewick’s swans and one of the best sites for breeding redshank, he said.
The presence of Bewick’s swans combined with the overwintering assemblage means that Amberley is included within the Arun Valley Special Protection Area.
The SSSI as a whole is divided up into 14 units, of which 11 have been rated as unfavourable by Natural England. Mr Ross said the Amberley Wildbrooks Nature Reserve consists of six of the units making up the SSSI.
He said: “The most recent assessment by Natural England found that the units under Sussex Wildlife Trust and RSPB management are recovering due to increased investment from both charities.
“In addition, Sussex Wildlife Trust has worked hard to obtain grant income from agri-environmental schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship, to help improve habitat management on site.”
Mr Ross added: “Sussex Wildlife Trust closely monitors wildlife on site through its own ecologists, together with a network of specialists, as part of a long-term ecological monitoring strategy.
“Sussex Wildlife Trust also has an independent external advisory body called the Conservation Committee made up of regional and national experts in nature conservation to ensure robust feedback on the recovery of the SSSI.”