Natural England confirmed Lodge Hill in Kent as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its nightingale population, special grassland and woodland.
The decision, taken by the Board at a public meeting, marks the final step in the designation process after Lodge Hill was notified as a SSSI in March this year.
The site was combined with SSSI land at neighbouring Chattenden Woods to form Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill SSSI. It is the first in Britain to have the nightingale – Luscinia megarhynchos – as one of its notified features.
As the Government’s conservation adviser, Natural England has a duty to notify SSSIs when it considers that an area of land is of special interest for its flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features. Selection of SSSIs is carried out in accordance with published guidelines and, once notified, the special interest features of a SSSI are given protection against operations that are likely to damage them.
Speaking after the Board’s decision, Poul Christensen, Natural England’s Chairman, said: “The evidence clearly points to this site being one of the most important strongholds for nightingales in the country. Confirming this land as a Site of Special Scientific Interest gives the clearest possible recognition of this.”
The site’s national importance for nightingales was first established by a national survey carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) last year. It found that the scrub and woodland habitat was home to more than one per cent of Great Britain’s nightingale population, making it one of the most important strongholds for the bird in the country. Further research also discovered that the site contains over 11 ha of lowland species-rich grassland.
In order to help inform today’s discussion by the Board further research was carried out into the local nightingale population by the BTO. This confirmed that the population had reduced from 85 pairs in 2012 to 65 in 2013, giving a two-year mean of 75 which still represented at least 1.15% of the British population (estimated at up to 6,550 in 2012). The decline was consistent with an exceptionally poor breeding season for migrant birds throughout Great Britain in 2012.
The new SSSI covers 351 ha on the Hoo Peninsula in north Kent; the previous SSSI covered 128 ha. As well as its important nightingale population Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill SSSI is considered to be of special interest for its lowland ancient and long-established semi-natural woodland and its unimproved neutral grassland, both of which are nationally important.
The site includes land identified as the potential location for a major housing development. More than 80% of the local nightingale population is distributed across the area proposed to be allocated for development.
The decision to extend the SSSI clarifies the environmental importance of the site but does not determine whether or not development can go ahead; this is a matter for the planning system. Natural England will continue to engage with the local planning authority (Medway Council), the landowner (Ministry of Defence) and its commercial partner (Land Securities) to contribute, as appropriate, to the planning process. In particular, and in order to contribute to sustainable development, we will consider carefully any proposals for a habitat creation scheme to offset the impacts on the special wildlife of the site, should development proceed.