Special Protection Areas (SPAs)



Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are strictly protected sites classified in accordance with Article 4 of the EC Birds Directive, which came into force in April 1979. They are classified for rare and vulnerable birds (as listed on Annex I of the Directive), and for regularly occurring migratory species. The European Commission's website hosts a full copy of the Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds (Birds Directive) (the codified version of Council Directive 79/409/EEC as amended), within which all the Articles and Annexes (including amendments) are given, along with useful interpretation information. JNCC has prepared an Index to key rulings of the European Court of Justice relating to the selection, classification and management of SPAs under Article 4 of the EU Birds Directive.

Classification of SPAs

The Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis - one of the UK bird species for which SPAs have been classified - © Pierre Tellier

In the UK, the first SPAs were identified and classified in the early to mid 1980s. Classification has since progressed and a regularly updated UK SPA Summary Table provides an overview of both the number of classified SPAs and those approved by Government that are currently in the process of being classified (these are known as potential SPAs, or pSPAs).
A full list of UK SPAs is also available, which gives the site name, site code, area, and location and its classification status. This has also been split into lists for each individual country in the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales).
The Birds Directive provides no formal criteria for selecting SPAs, so the JNCC, on behalf of the statutory country conservation agencies and government, published SPA Selection Guidelines for use in the UK. Each SPA has been selected according to the principles laid out in the selection guidelines. At the time of classification two documents are produced; the citation and the Natura 2000 Standard Data Form. Both are legal documents, the former is used within the UK to consult with the public at classification, and the latter is derived from the citation and is the standard way in which data are registered by government and transmitted to the European Commission.
Paper copies of citations can be requested from the relevant country agency (Natural Resources Wales (formally Countryside Council for Wales), Natural England (formally English Nature) and Scottish Natural Heritage, together with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency), as can information on the Sites, or Areas, of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI or ASSI) that underpin most SPAs. However, we have converted the information that appears in the Natura 2000 Standard Data Form for all classified SPAs into a UK SPA Data Excel spreadsheet that can be downloaded. This spreadsheet also contains other published data relevant to SPAs, including text from the 'SPA Review' (see below).
The boundary of each classified SPA is mapped digitally. UK SPA boundaries can be downloaded in the form of ArcShape files for use in a GIS. Boundaries are not available for potential SPAs.
The European Commission tracks progress in classification of SPAs across the European Union by analysing the data submitted to it by Member States in the Natura 2000 Standard Data Form. This progress is then summarised in the regularly updated Natura 2000 Barometer, which gives details of the number of sites classified, the total area covered by these and what proportion of the country this represents, along with a simple assessment of how complete both a country's SPA network is and are the data that have been sent to the Commission.

Review of the UK SPA Network

The Lapwing Vanellus vanellus - another species for which SPAs have been classified © Pierre TellierIn the mid-1990s, the JNCC and country agencies were requested by government to review the SPA network in the UK. This review process culminated with the publication of what is commonly known as the SPA Review (Stroud et al. 2001; The UK SPA network: its scope and content, JNCC).
The SPA Review revised our understanding of the UK SPA network, both in terms of the number of sites selected and the species that qualify within these sites. The review presents site accounts that may differ from the currently classified SPA citation and Natura 2000 Standard Data Form. These accounts are effectively lists of potential qualifying species and as such, according to government policy, these species are fully protected in the SPA or pSPA. As a result of the review the legal documents for many classified SPAs in the UK network now require amending to incorporate changes to qualifying species; this process will take some time to complete.
At completion of the SPA Review, the government consulted widely with other stakeholders on the results. In response to this consultation the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) convened an advisory group to take forward further consideration of SPA network development; the UK SPA & Ramsar (Avian) Scientific Working Group (SPAR SWG).
The SPA Review focused largely on terrestrial SPAs, but recognised the need for a review of implementation of the Birds Directive in the UK's marine environment. This is now well underway and more information is available elsewhere on this website in Marine Protected Areas. However, future updates to the information presented here will also include marine SPAs.