At the July General Synod - the national assembly of the Church of England - the First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, revealed that of the approximately 2,094-acres of SSSIs owned by the Church, only 948 acres - 45% - were in a ‘favourable’ condition according to its latest data.
Minghella continued in her response to say that: “We are developing a process for annual carbon and natural capital reporting to assist with our natural capital and net zero strategy and our ongoing stewardship of these areas.”
She also said that the majority of SSSIs form part of tenanted holdings where management decisions and activities are decided by tenants.
10.8% of the Church’s 92,000-acre rural portfolio is subject to an environmental designation such as SSSIs, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Special Protection Areas and National Parks. An additional 6,000 acres are identified as priority habitats.
The Church Commissioners administer the property assets of the Church of England.
The Commissioners own a 105,000-acre land and property portfolio worth £2 billion and have been described as “notoriously tight-lipped about their landholdings” by Who Owns England, a blog authored by Guy Shrubsole, policy and campaigns coordinator at Rewilding Britain.
Shrubsole commented on the response concerning SSSIs on social media, saying that it is “great to see more scrutiny of Church land use”.
The Commissioners were also asked in the July Synod what percentage of the 92,000-acre rural portfolio would be designated for protecting and enhancing nature, following the natural capital assessment the institution is currently carrying out.
Minghella responded that the results of the assessment will be used to “better understand the current position of our portfolios”, and that all land holdings will be reviewed subsequently to understand where environmental improvements can be made.
She continued: “Across the development land portfolio, new planning applications are typically seeking to deliver 10% biodiversity net gain across development sites, in line with the requirements we would anticipate in the light of the Environment Bill.”
She added that the Church’s 92,700-acre woodland portfolio provides commercial forestry exposure in the UK, US and Ireland.
“Independent, third-party certification ensures the sustainable management of these forests”, she said, adding that “at least 20% of the area within our UK forests are managed with biodiversity as the primary objective”.
Across England, more than half (54%) of SSSIs are in unfavourable condition, according to 2020 data.
In DEFRA’s Biodiversity 2020 strategy, it laid out an ambition for at least 50% of England’s SSSIs to be in favourable condition.
The Church of England did not offer further comment when approached.