SPA selection guidelines

The Birds Directive
Selection guidelines for Special Protection Areas


In 1979 the European Community adopted the Council Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (79/409/EEC). This Directive is usually referred to as the Birds Directive. It provides for the protection, management and control of all species of naturally occurring wild birds in the European territory of Member States. In particular it requires Member States to identify areas to be given special protection for the rare or vulnerable species listed in Annex I (Article 4.1) and for regularly occurring migratory species (Article 4.2) and for the protection of wetlands, especially wetlands of international importance. These areas are known as Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
These guidelines have been prepared to assist the selection of SPAs in the UK. The process involves two stages. The first stage is intended to identify areas which are likely to qualify for SPA status. These areas are then considered further using one or more of the judgements in Stage 2 to select the most suitable areas in number and size for SPA classification. Stage 1's fourth guideline gives consideration, using the Stage 2 judgements, to cases where a species' population status, ecology or movement patterns may mean that an adequate number of areas cannot be identified from Stage 1's first three guidelines alone. In addition, these Stage 2 judgements are particularly important for selecting and determining the boundaries of SPAs for thinly dispersed and wide-ranging species.
In the application of Stage 2 judgements, a preference should be given to those areas which contribute significantly to the species population viability locally and as a whole. The protection of the populations in these areas is considered alongside, and is complemented by, other non-site-based special measures designed to maintain populations.
The national implementation of the Natura 2000 network and other special conservation measures need to be co-ordinated at a European Union level to ensure the survival and reproduction in the areas of distribution of each Annex I or migratory bird species. In the light of this objective, selection of SPAs in the UK has regard to conservation measures being taken for each species by other European Union Member States.

Stage 1

  1. An area is used regularly by 1% or more of the Great Britain (or in Northern Ireland, the all-Ireland) population of a species listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC as amended) in any season.
  2. An area is used regularly by 1% or more of the biogeographical population of a regularly occurring migratory species (other than those listed in Annex I) in any season.
  3. An area is used regularly by over 20,000 waterfowl (waterfowl as defined by the Ramsar Convention) or 20,000 seabirds in any season.
  4. An area which meets the requirements of one or more of the Stage 2 guidelines in any season, where the application of Stage 1 guidelines 1, 2 or 3 for a species does not identify an adequate suite of most suitable sites for the conservation of that species.


Stage 2

1. Population size and density

Areas holding or supporting more birds than others and/or holding or supporting birds at higher concentrations are favoured for selection.


2. Species range

Areas selected for a given species provide as wide a geographic coverage across the species'
range as possible.


3. Breeding success

Areas of higher breeding success than others are favoured for selection.


4. History of occupancy

Areas known to have a longer history of occupation or use by the relevant species are favoured for selection.


5. Multi-species areas

Areas holding or supporting the larger number of qualifying species under Article 4 of the Directive are favoured for selection.


6. Naturalness

Areas comprising natural or semi-natural habitats are favoured for selection over those which do not.


7. Severe weather refuges

Areas used at least once a decade by significant proportions of the biogeographical population of a species in periods of severe weather in any season, and which are vital to the survival of a viable population, are favoured for selection.


Glossary of terms

Areas to be classified as SPAs should:
  • be distinct in habitat and/or ornithological importance from the surroundings and have definable and recognisable character;
  • provide the conservation requirements of the species in the season(s) and for the particular purposes for which they are classified.
    (see also 'Use' of areas)
Biogeographical population
A biogeographical population is a group of birds which breed in a particular location (or group of locations), breed freely within the group, and rarely breed or exchange individuals with other groups.
The number of individuals of a species per unit area. In practice a range of methods are used to assess numbers in SPAs, for example, breeding pairs and singing males.
Article I(1)(a) of the Bonn Convention defines a migratory species as "the entire population or any geographically separate part of the population of any species or lower taxon of wild animals, a significant proportion of whose members cyclically and predictably cross one or more national jurisdictional boundaries."
Natura 2000
EU network of classified SPAs and Special Areas of Conservation designated under the Habitats Directive.
Population viability
Populations which contribute most to population viability locally and as a whole may show one or more of the following attributes:
  1. a level of recruitment into the breeding population that equals or exceeds immigration and mortality (averaged over a suitable period of time); and/or
  2. small scale population fluctuations around a stable population size; and/or
  3. an area supporting a population of a species which enables its geographic range to be maintained on a long-term basis.
Best available scientific data will be used to make such assessments.
Ramsar Convention
Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. The Convention was adopted at a meeting of countries concerned with wetlands and waterfowl held in Ramsar, Iran in 1971 and was ratified by the UK in 1976.
The Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention has defined the term "regularly" as used in the Ramsar site selection criteria and this definition applies also to these Guidelines. A wetland regularly supports a population of a given size if:
  1. the requisite number of birds is known to have occurred in two thirds of the seasons for which adequate data are available, the total number of seasons being not less than three; or
  2. the mean of the maxima of those seasons in which the site is internationally important, taken over at least five years, amounts to the required level (means based on three or four years may be quoted in provisional assessments only).
In some instances however, for example species occurring in very remote areas or which are particularly rare, areas may be considered suitable on the basis of fewer counts.
Area/local population, within which fecundity exceeds the sum of mortality and immigration, and results in a net emigration of individuals.
Special Protection Area (SPA)
Area classified under Article 4 of the Birds Directive.
SPA classification
The process of formally notifying SPAs to the European Commission.
Special conservation measures
Article 4.1 of the Birds Directive requires that "special conservation measures" are taken to conserve the habitat of species listed in Annex I of the Directive, to ensure their survival and reproduction in their area of distribution, in particular the classification of SPAs. Similar measures must be taken for regularly occurring migratory species, under Article 4.2.
Species range
Article 4 of the Birds Directive requires Member States to ensure the survival and reproduction of Annex I and regularly occurring migratory species "in their area of distribution". Article I of the Habitats Directive necessitates, amongst other considerations, the "natural range of the species" to be maintained for a species' status to be regarded as favourable. The range of a species is the limits of its geographical distribution.
`Use' of areas
Article 4.2 of the Birds Directive requires special measures to be taken for migratory species at "breeding, moulting and wintering areas and staging posts along their migration routes". The boundary of each SPA is so determined that it delimits an area which provides the conservation requirements of the species in the season(s) and for the particular purposes for which it is classified.

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