Seas off Foula proposed SPA

Status: Under Consultation - proposed Special Protection Area (pSPA)

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The consultation on this area closed at midnight on the 17 January 2017.

 Seas off Foula pSPA

The proposed Seas off Foula SPA covers the waters around and to the northwest of Foula, lying about 15 km west of mainland Shetland. This island hosts more than 190,000 breeding seabirds, making it one of the largest and oldest seabird colonies in Britain.

More than 5% of the British great skua population catches its food in this part of the north-east Atlantic and the seas off Foula hold the largest at-sea aggregation of this species within British waters, during the breeding season.

Seabirds breeding on Foula are already protected on land and in the waters immediately surrounding the island by the existing Foula SPA . The new proposed Seas off Foula SPA will complement the existing protection and ensure that the adjacent marine foraging area and the prey on which the seabirds depend are equally protected.

More detailed site information can be found on the Summary tab below.

Relevant Documents

The documents referred to below are specific to Seas off Foula pSPA and form JNCC’s advice and evidence package.  The consultation is inviting comments on the Site Selection Document, which outlines the scientific case for the classification of the pSPA.  JNCC provide all the other documents listed below to support the consultation process with information on the suggested Conservation Objectives and Management Options for the site. JNCC are not consulting on these documents but would welcome any information to further develop the texts.

Site Selection Document  – This document is a detailed overview of the pSPA, the qualifying features and rationale for site selection.

Conservation Objectives and Reg 18 package  – This document contains the draft Conservation Objectives for the qualifying bird features of the site as well as information about the sensitivity of the features to human activities and their pressures on the environment.

Advice to Support Management  - This paper considers a range of activities taking place within the pSPA, and focuses on activities which we consider present a risk to the protected features.

Impact assessment  – Provided by Marine Scotland covering all Scottish SPA sites. The impact assessment will help people understand how the pSPA may impact on them and estimate the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of the pSPA.

Leaflet – A summary leaflet about the pSPA has been created to distribute locally and at stakeholder events. A pdf version is also available to download here.


Should you wish to make a response please do so using this online form

Information about the general UK SPA site selection process is available on the JNCC SPA  pages. In addition, details about how JNCC selected the most suitable pSPAs in UK offshore waters (Stage 2 of the UK SPA selection process) is provided here.


The Seas off Foula marine proposed Special Protection Area is being proposed by the UK Government to meet obligations set out in the Birds Directive (2009/147/EC). The Directive provides a framework for the conservation and management of, and human interactions with, wild birds in Europe.

Site details


UK offshore waters,

Scottish continental shelf

Location (Centroid*)

60° 08.520’N, 002°28.539’W


3,412 km2
Features proposed

Breeding season:
great skua Stercorarius skua,

northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis, (assemblage).
Arctic skua Stercorarius parasiticus, (assemblage).
common guillemot Uria aalge, (assemblage).

Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica, (assemblage).


Non-breeding season:
great skua Stercorarius skua, (assemblage).

northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis, (assemblage).
common guillemot Uria aalge, (assemblage).

Site overview

Seas off Foula proposed SPA (pSPA) is located in Scottish marine waters, north of the Scottish mainland and Orkney, and encloses the island of Foula. The seabed around Foula comprises a mosaic of subtidal coarse sediments and moderate-energy circalittoral rock, with some sand and muddy sand habitats in the northwest (McBreen et al. 2011). In the site, water depths range mainly between 50m and 150m, with shallower areas also protected adjacent to the island of Foula. Sand eels, an important prey item for the protected features particularly the great skua (Furness and Hislop 1981; Votier et al. 2007), use these sediment habitats in this 30-80m depth range (Wright et al. 2000).

The Seas off Foula pSPA will provide protection for five species of seabird that use these surrounding seas for foraging within and outside their breeding season. The Shetland-Orkney thermal front overlaps with Seas off Foula, suggesting that this feature might create relatively predictable foraging areas (Begg and Reid 1997). The site is also thought to be a spawning and nursery ground for sandeels (Ellis et al. 2012 & Coull et al. 1998) although numbers have declined since 1980 having a knock on impact on the seabirds breeding here.

A recent tracking study on individual great skua from Foula showed that these individuals used marine areas close by their breeding colonies for foraging, particularly an area to the west of Shetland (Thaxter et al. 2011; Wade et al. 2012). Hence, there is a strong link between great skuas breeding at Foula and the marine Seas off Foula pSPA. Given the large foraging range of great skua individuals from many other breeding colonies, including the large colonies at the islands of Hoy (Orkney) and Unst (Shetland), could potentially use the site, although direct evidence of such use is lacking at present. Northern fulmar also have a large foraging range which has been estimated as 122 km based on periods of absence during incubation and chick rearing (Hamer et al. 1997). If similar foraging ranges are assumed for the Shetland colonies of northern fulmar, the Seas off Foula pSPA is a potential foraging area for these colonies.

More details of these studies can be found in the Evidence tab.

Site boundary description: The seaward boundary for this pSPA has been set based on data showing the extent of the great skua aggregation in the area. The other qualifying species, which form part of the seabird assemblage, are quantified within the area used by great skua. The landward boundary of the Seas off Foula pSPA is adjacent to the existing Foula SPA to avoid overlap of the SPAs.

View the proposed boundary on a marine chart background.

If you want to know more about the methods used to identify the seas off Foula pSPA, please look at our web page on Marine SPA  Identification, which will provide some background on the different strands of work JNCC used to identify marine SPAs, or on the web page on ESAS methods, which will provide more details on the data and methods used for this work.



BEGG,G.S. & REID,J.B. 1997. Spatial variation in seabird density at a shallow sea tidal mixing front in the Irish Sea. ICES Journal of Marine Science: Journal du Conseil 54: 552-565.

COULL,K.A., JOHNSTONE,R., and ROGERS,S.I. 1998. Fisheries sensitivity maps in British waters. Pp. 1-58. UK Offshore Operators Association Ltd, Aberdeen.

ELLIS,J.R., MILLIGAN,S.P., READDY,L., TAYLOR,N., & BROWN,M.J. 2012. Spawning and nursery grounds of selected fish species in UK waters. Science Series Technical Report No. 147. CEFAS, Lowestoft, UK.

FURNESS,R.W. & HISLOP,J.R.G. 1981. Diets and feeding ecology of the Great skuas Catharacta skua during the breeding season in Shetland. Journal of Zoology London series A 195: 1-23.

HAMER,K.C., THOMPSON,D.R., & GRAY,C.M. 1997. Spatial variation in the feeding ecology, foraging ranges, and breeding energetics of northern fulmars in the north-east Atlantic Ocean. ICES Journal of Marine Science 54: 645-653.

MCBREEN,F., ASKEW,N., CAMERON,A., CONNOR,D., ELLWOOD,H., & CARTER,A. 2011. UKSeaMap 2010: Predictive mapping of seabed habitats in UK waters. JNCC Report No. 446.

THAXTER,C.B., ROSS-SMITH,V.H., CLARK,N.A., CONWAY,G.J., REHFISCH,M.M., BOUTEN,W., & BURTON,N.H.K. 2011. Measuring the interaction between marine features of Special Protection Areas with offshore wind farm development zones through telemetry: first breeding season. Report to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. No. 590.

VOTIER,S.C., BEARHOP,S., CRANE,J.E., ARCOS,J.M., & FURNESS,R.W. 2007. Seabird predation by great skuas Sterkorarius skua - intra-specific competition for food? Journal of Avian Biology 38: 234-246

WADE,H.M., MASDEN,E.A., JACKSON,A.C., THAXTER,C.B., BURTON,N.H.K., BOUTEN,W., & FURNESS,R.W. 2013. GPS tracking of great skuas Stercorarius skua to investigate interactions with fisheries and marine renewable energy developments. .

WRIGHT,P.J., JENSEN,H., & TUCK,I. 2000. The influence of sediment type on the distribution of the lesser sandeel, Ammodytes marinus. Journal of Sea Research 44: 243-256.


Site specific data
The full overview of the data used to support site identification along with information on qualifying species is available in the Seas off Foula pSPA site selection document.
Data for the identification of this pSPA have been collected by boat surveys for the ESAS database. Data from these surveys provide direct evidence confirming the presence of the protected features within the site. Information from the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP) database is used to supplement ESAS data to provide evidence of regular occurrence of species at the colonies most likely to be providing birds that forage in Seas off Foula. Tracking data were used to highlight the importance of this area to the breeding population of great skua at the Foula colony.

Data gathering

  • European Seabirds at Sea database, and the Seabird Census and Seabird Monitoring Programme

    The European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) database is a collation of surveys of seabirds at sea in northwest European waters. Further information on ESAS and the analytical methods is summarised in marine SPAs for seabirds. At Seas off St Foula pSPA, the analysis of the ESAS data determines the overall importance of the location for the qualifying species. It provides an estimate of the number of birds present in the area and information on how regularly they occur.

    The ESAS data showed that more than 52,000 birds used Seas off Foula during the breeding season (data collected between 1980-2003). More recent data based on colony counts between 2007 and 2013, indicate that seabird populations have decreased since the ESAS data were collected, therefore the scale of the assemblage might be slightly smaller at present. However we still expect the site to exceed 20,000 birds which equals the site selection threshold. 

    The site is also important during winter months with an estimate of around 20,200 birds using the site during this season. Great skua, northern fulmar and guillemot are the three main species which use the site all year round, although population estimates do decrease over the winter.

    Great skua population is estimated to be just under 1,600 birds during the breeding season, dropping to ~300 during winter. This is the only area in the UK waters where great skua numbers exceed 1% of the biogeographic population threshold (used to select SPAs) on a regular basis.  The other species qualifying as part of the seabird assemblage are; Northern fulmar, guillemot, Atlantic puffin and Arctic skua. Population estimates for these species can be found in the Site Selection Document.


  • Tracking data
    Thaxter et al. (2011) fitted Global Positioning System (GPS) tags to four great skua breeding on Foula in 2010 and tracked their movement during the incubation period. The following year Wade et al. (2012) fitted similar loggers to a further 10 great skua from the colony. Core foraging areas were identified from this tracking data and both studies show that the great skua was using the Seas off Foula to forage during the breeding season. These data highlight the importance of the marine site for the breeding population at this particular colony.


Seabird distribution

Seabird features whose distribution are defining the proposed boundary.

The Seas off Foula proposed SPA was designed to protect primarily great skuas during the breeding season. The boundary is therefore determined by the great skua distribution and aims to capture the most important area for this species.

Great skua, breeding [view map]


Seabird features which are protected but which are not defining the proposed boundary.
Within the boundary, an important number of seabirds (>20,000) is present during the breeding season, as well as during winter. The seabird assemblage distribution does not affect the Seas off Foula proposed SPA boundary, in fact important seabird areas for these species might well occur outside the boundary. Nevertheless the seabird number within the proposed boundary exceeds the threshold for assemblage protection through the Birds Directive and the seabird assemblages (breeding and winter) are therefore included as features into the proposal.

The most important seabird species making up the assemblages also occur as protected features in the Seas off Foula proposal. Just like the assemblages they jointly form, their distribution does not affect the proposed boundary and important areas for these species might well occur outside the boundary.

Seabird assemblage, breeding [view map]

Named components of the breeding seabird assemblage:

                Great skua, breeding [view map]
                Arctic skua, breeding [view map]
                Northern fulmar, breeding [view map]
                Common guillemot, breeding [view map]
                Atlantic puffin, breeding [view map]

Seabird assemblage, winter [view map]

Named components of the seabird assemblage during winter:

                Great skua, winter [view map]
                Northern fulmar, winter [view map]
                Common guillemot, winter [view map]


European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) database

THAXTER,C.B., ROSS-SMITH,V.H., CLARK,N.A., CONWAY,G.J., REHFISCH,M.M., BOUTEN,W., & BURTON,N.H.K. 2011. Measuring the interaction between marine features of Special Protection Areas with offshore wind farm development zones through telemetry: first breeding season. Report to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. No. 590.


WADE,H.M., MASDEN,E.A., JACKSON,A.L., THAXTER,C.B., BURTON,N.H.K., BOWMAN,J., & FURNESS,R.W. GPS tracking of great skuas Stercorarius skua to investigate interactions with fisheries and marine renewable energy developments. . 2012.


Conservation objectives

The Conservation Objectives set out what needs to be achieved for the site to make the appropriate contribution to the conservation status of the features for which the site is designated and thus deliver the aims of the Birds Directive.

The draft conservation objectives for the protected features of the Seas off Foula pSPA have been set based on our understanding of what is important with regards to defining condition of the protected feature at the time of writing. Further information on conservation objectives is provided in the Seas off Foula  Conservation objectives and advice on operations document.



To avoid significant deterioration of the habitats of the qualifying species or significant disturbance to the qualifying species, subject to natural change, thus ensuring that the integrity of the site is maintained in the long term and makes an appropriate contribution to achieving the aims of the Birds Directive for each of the qualifying species.


This contribution would be achieved through delivering the following objectives for each of the sites qualifying features: 


a) Avoid significant mortality, injury and disturbance of the qualifying features, so that the distribution of the species and ability to use the site are maintained in the long-term;
b) Maintain the habitats and food resources of the qualifying features in favourable condition.



Further supplementary advice on the draft conservation objectives is provided in the Conservation objectives and advice on operations document.

Conservation Objectives are the starting point from which any management actions and monitoring programmes may be developed and should be considered when completing a Habitats Regulations Appraisal (HRA) for a proposed plan or project in or near this site.


Advice on operations

In line with Regulation (18) of the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats, & c.) Regulations 2007 (as amended), the advice on operations identifies those operations (human activities) that may cause damage or deterioration to the qualifying species, or their supporting habitats, for which the Seas off Foula pSPA has been classified. This information will be useful if you are developing, proposing or assessing an activity, plan or project that might affect the site.

The greatest direct threats to great skua, northern fulmar, Atlantic puffin and common guillemot  from human activities are likely to be energy production and extraction of living resources (fishing) activities (based on best scientific evidence at the time of writing). However, all may be sensitive to some pressures exerted by the following types of activity;

  • renewable energy developments: wind, wave and tidal.
  • marine hydrocarbon energy developments,
  • fishing activities
  • disturbance from activities such as shipping and recreational boating/yachting
  • military activities
  • possibly industrial and agricultural liquid discharges and to waste disposal from munitions, but little is known and this is not assessed due to lack of evidence. 

These activities do not necessarily occur in or near the site at present however they are important to bear in mind to avoid potentially damaging activities from occurring within the pSPA in the future.

No assessments of sensitivity of Arctic skua to activities or pressures are available. In the absence of this information the ecology of Arctic skua and expert judgment has been used to determine which activities might pose the greatest threat to this species at this site. The greatest direct threat to Arctic skua is energy production, but given the feeding technique of this species to steel food from smaller seabirds they may also be indirectly affected by all the activities above.

Any activity that can cause a pressure or pressures to which the feature may be sensitive could present a risk to the feature of not achieving the conservation objective and we advise competent authorities should manage these in order to reduce or remove the overall risk to the proposed site’s qualifying features. Further advice on activities than can present a risk to the achievement of the site’s conservation objectives is available in the advice package.

Our scientific understanding of the ecology of the site, its integrity and its qualifying features and how activities can affect them may change over time. JNCC’s conservation advice will be kept under review and will be periodically updated to reflect  this.



Management actions seek to avoid any adverse effects on the listed features from those pressures associated with human activities. All activities (on or off-site) should be managed in such a way as to minimise disturbance and mortality of the proposed bird features themselves or the habitat and food resource on which they rely to avoid the risk of impacting the local population level to ensure the site’s conservation objectives are achieved (Tillin et al, 2010).

JNCC has developed a management options paper  to support discussions with stakeholders about the management of activities within this pSPA. This paper considers a range of activities and developments taking place within the pSPA at the point of writing, and focuses on where we consider there could be a risk of the protected features not achieving their conservation objectives.   


TILLIN,H.M., HULL,S.C.,& TYLER-WALTERS,H. 2010. Development of a Sensitivity Matrix (pressures-MCZ/MPA features). Report to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from ABPMer, Southampton and the Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN) Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the UK. Defra Contract No. MB0102 Task 3A, Report No. 22.