3. Selection guidelines for Special Protection Areas

3.1 Background to derivation

The process of selecting SPAs in the UK has been hindered by the lack of agreed selection criteria formalised at a European scale. Selection guidelines for the UK have, therefore, been derived from knowledge of common international practice. The selection guidelines below – which are based on scientific criteria – were prepared to assist the selection of SPAs in the UK. They were published by JNCC in 1999 on behalf of the statutory agencies and government departments concerned.
In order to maintain conformity and common standards, the UK has had regard to the internationally agreed guidelines for the selection of wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The SPA guidelines make explicit reference to a number of definitions and other principles relating to Ramsar site selection guidance.
The selection guidelines were applied to available data in two stages (described in more detail in section 4 - PDF, 56 kb):
1) the first stage identified areas likely to qualify for SPA status;
2) the second stage considered these areas 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 allows consideration, using the Stage 2 judgements, to be given 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. The Stage 2 judgements were particularly important for selecting and determining the boundaries of SPAs for thinly dispersed and wide-ranging species.
In the application of Stage 2 judgements, preference was given to those areas that contributed significantly to the species' population viability both locally and as a whole. The protection of the populations in SPAs was considered alongside, and is complemented by other non-site-based special measures designed to maintain populations (section 6 - (PDF, 19 kb).

3.2 The guidelines

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.