Special Protection Areas

Marine Special Protection Areas in the UK

Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are special sites designated under the EU Birds Directive to protect rare, vulnerable and migratory birds. The Directive came into force in April 1979. Marine SPAs protect and manage areas that these birds use for breeding, feeding, wintering or migration. Marine SPAs are also known as European Marine Sites (EMS) and form part of the European network of Natura 2000 sites.

The Birds Directive states that conservation measures should be taken in both the land and sea areas. 106 UK SPAs include marine components, defined as sites with “qualifying Birds Directive Annex I species or regularly occurring migratory species that are dependent on the marine environment for all or part of their lifecycle, where these species are found in association with intertidal or subtidal habitats.”1 

The Directive does not prescribe the selection process for SPAs. Guidelines on the site selection process and marine SPA identification were developed by the JNCC. Socio-economic considerations cannot be taken into account when identifying site features or boundaries, rather,site selection must be based entirely on scientific evidence. 

JNCC carries out research to assist in the identification of marine SPAs in a UK context, including determining areas of UK waters where 44 species of marine birds aggregate. 

There are four main types of marine SPA: 

  1. Marine extensions to existing seabird breeding colony SPAs  
  2. Inshore aggregations of non-breeding waterbirds 
  3. Offshore aggregations of seabirds 
  4. Other types of SPA 


The relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Body (SNH, NE, NRW, and DAERA for inshore waters up to 12 nautical miles from the coast, or JNCC for offshore waters from 12 to 200 nautical miles) then takes responsibility for using the evidence to determine potential marine SPA areas to take forward for public consultation. The Defra Secretary of State decides whether sites should be classified. Defra informs the European Commission once the Minister has classified an SPA. A full list of designated SPAs can be found on the JNCC website

For information on consultations please look on the websites for JNCC for offshore areas, SNH for Scottish territorial areas, Natural England for English territorial waters, and NRW for Welsh consultations. 

SPA Management 

Entirely intertidal SPA sites can be managed under SSSI/ASSI mechanism,as most EMS (whole, or part, of a SAC or SPA) are also designated as SSSIs/ASSIs. The relevant conservation agency provide management views and a list of operations that require consent. Most subtidal EMS are managed under the Habitats Regulations 2017 or Offshore Habitats Regulations 2017. Management schemes are optional, but the relevant nature conservation body is required to communicate the conservation objectives for the site, and must also advise of operations which may cause deterioration or disturbance of the feature for which the site has been designated.  

For further information on site-specific management, look at the MMO strategic management table



For English inshore waters, Natural England is responsible for recommending potential SPAs to Defra for classification, taking scientific advice from JNCC. Beyond 12 nm, JNCC is responsible for site identification. The Defra Secretary of State decides whether sites should be classified. 

There are 44 SPAs with marine components in English inshore waters, including four cross border sites and one straddling the inshore and offshore regions. 

Natural England held consultations that closed in early 2017 on proposals to extend existing or create new SPAs to protect the ideal feeding waters used by protected birds. These included Solway Firth pSPA,Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay pSPA,Greater Wash pSPASolent and Dorset Coast pSPA, and Liverpool Bay SPA extension

In October 2017, SPA designations were made to extensions to four existing SPAs; Poole Harbour SPA, Liverpool Bay SPA, Outer Thames SPA and Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay SPA. A new marine SPA site was also designated, that of Falmouth Bay to St Austell Bay SPA. 



Natural Resources Wales (NRW) determine SPA sites in Wales. There are 12 SPAs with marine components in Welsh waters, including three cross-border sites with England. Birds protected by SPAs in Wales include common scoter, red kites, merlin, osprey, golden plover and Manx Shearwater. 

Consultations on further SPAs in Welsh waters closed in May 2016,with reports submitted to Government on 19 October 2016. Welsh Ministers classified the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) of AngleseyTerns /Morwenoliaid Ynys Môn SPA, Northern Cardigan Bay / Gogledd Bae Ceredigion SPA, and Skomer, Skokholm and the seas off Pembrokeshire / Sgomer, Sgogwm a moroedd Penfro SPA in January 2017.  

The Irish Sea Front SPA, an offshore site, was designated in October 2017, after consultation between the 23rd January and 20th April 2017. 



Scotland has 45 existing marine SPAs (one of which is a cross-border site with England), of which 31 are extensions to seabird colony SPAs, to protect a range of vulnerable or migratory bird species such as puffins and kittiwakes. 

SNH and JNCC have submitted formal advice to Scottish Ministers for 15 pSPAs used by 31 species of seabird,including important foraging sites for both breeding seabirds and migratory over-wintering birds. The consultation on those pSPAs in Scottish territorial waters, and hence under exclusive responsibility of Scottish Ministers, ran from July to October 2016, encompassing 10 of the 15 proposed sites. 

Consultation ran from 4 October 2016 to 17 January 2017 on four offshore pSPAs which need agreement from both Scottish Ministers and the UK Government. These include the Seas off St Kilda pSPA, the Seas off Foula pSPA, Pentland Firth pSPA and the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex pSPA. The final site, that of Solway Firth pSPA, which has cross-border components with England, and hence also requires UK Government approval, was also open for consultation at the same time.  


Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) Natural Environment Division is responsible for the designation and management of SPAs in Northern Ireland, supported by DAERA Marine and Fisheries Division with provision of expert knowledge and monitoring for the management of marine and coastal SPA sites. 

There are 9 SPA sites with a marine component in Northern Ireland, including Belfast Lough (the only entirely marine SPA in Northern Irish waters), Carlingford Lough, Killough Bay, Larne Lough, Lough Foyle, Outer Ards, Rathlin Island, and Strangford Lough, with further information available on the DAERA website

Consultations were held in 2016 for two marine SPAs in Northern Irish waters; East Coast (Northern Ireland) Marine pSPA and an extension to Carlingford Loch SPA.   


[1] http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-4559