Status: Special Protection Area (SPA)
The Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex is an extensive SPA off the south-east coast of Scotland. It stretches from Arbroath in the North to St Abb's Head in the South and encompasses the Firth of Forth, the outer Firth of Tay and St Andrews Bay. The waters in this SPA attract one of the largest and most diverse marine bird concentrations in Scotland and the site is classified for the protection of 21 seabird and waterbird species.
The Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA contains many sheltered areas, such as firths, inlets and sandy bays, used by seabirds and waterbirds to feed, moult, rest and roost. They lie close to the nesting sites of a large number of birds breeding in the area during the summer season. During this time, the SPA provides feeding grounds for thousands of northern gannets (Morus bassanus), black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) and the largest concentration of common terns (Sterna hirundo) in Scotland.
The SPA is also an important refuge for birds which have migrated thousands of miles from their breeding grounds in northern Europe and western Siberia to spend the winter in the area. During this time of the year, the site supports more than 35% of the common eider (Somateria mollissima mollissima) and over 23% of the velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) British wintering populations, along with the largest Scottish concentrations of red-throated diver (Gavia stellata) and little gull (Larus minutus).
The boundary of the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA extends beyond 12 nautical miles; hence it is a site for which both NatureScot and JNCC have responsibility to provide statutory advice.
More detailed site information can be found in the Summary section below.
Legislation behind the designation: The Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex marine Special Protection Area was classified by the UK Government to meet obligations set out in the Birds Directive (2009/147/EC), and is protected by The Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended). Other regulations apply in inshore waters.
|Red-throated diver Gavia stellata (non-breeding)
|Slavonian grebe Podiceps auritus (non-breeding)
|Common eider Somateria mollissima mollissima (non-breeding)
Long-tailed duck Clangula hyemalis2 (non-breeding)
|Common scoter Melanitta nigra2 (non-breeding)
|Velvet scoter Melanitta fusca2 (non-breeding)
|Common goldeneye Bucephala clangula2 (non-breeding)
|Red-breasted merganser Mergus serrator2 (non-breeding)
|Non-breeding waterfowl assemblage (divers, grebe & ducks)
|[n/a; >20,000 birds]
1 Figures in parenthesis are %s of biogeographical populations for species qualifying under guideline 1.2.
2 Named qualifier of the non-breeding waterfowl assemblage.
Breeding and non-breeding seabirds
|Common tern Sterna hirundo (breeding)
|Arctic tern Sterna paradisaea (breeding)
|European shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis (breeding)
|European shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis (non-breeding)3
|Northern gannet Morus bassanus (breeding)
|Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica (breeding)3
|Black-legged kittiwake Rissa tridactyla (breeding)3
|Black-legged kittiwake Rissa tridactyla (non-breeding)3
|[N/A; >2,000 birds]
|Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus3 (present during breeding season)
|[N/A; >2,000 birds]
|Common guillemot Uria aalge (breeding)3
|Common guillemot Uria aalge (non-breeding)
|[N/A; >2,000 birds]
|Razorbill Alca torda (non-breeding)
|[N/A; >2,000 birds]
|Herring gull Larus argentatus (breeding)3
|Herring gull Larus argentatus (non-breeding)3
|Little gull Larus minutus (non-breeding)3
|[N/A; >50 birds]
|Black-headed gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus (non-breeding)3
|Common gull Larus canus3 (non-breeding)
|Seabird assemblage (breeding)
|[N/A; >20,000 birds]
|Seabird assemblage (non-breeding)
|[N/a; >20,000 birds]
3Named qualifier of breeding or non-breeding seabird assemblage.
Note that the wording is in accordance with the Conservation Objectives, drafted to provide information during the public consultation. See also the Conservation Advice section.
The overarching conservation objectives for the protected features of this site are to ensure they either remain in or reach favourable condition. The ability of a designated feature to remain in or reach favourable condition can be affected by its sensitivity to pressures associated with activities taking place within or in close proximity to a protected site.
Specific information on the conservation objectives relating to this SPA is provided in the Conservation Advice section.
The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and classification of the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA.
The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA were produced during the selection and classification process and therefore may be out of date. This Site Information Centre is the most up-to-date source of information for this SPA and will reflect any additional information gathered since these documents were produced.
- Site selection Document – a more detailed overview of the SPA, and rationale for the classification of the site.
- Advice to support management – information about feature sensitivity, vulnerability and risk, and the conservation objectives for the classified features of the site.
- Overview of the Scottish marine Special Protection Area selection process – information on how evidence was used to identify potential marine SPAs in Scotland.
- Scottish proposed SPA network assessment – information about why the sites proposed are considered the most suitable territories, and the contribution the proposed SPAs and the species represented make to the Scottish Marine Protected Area network.
Information about the general UK SPA site selection process is available on the SPA overview webpage. More detailed information about the selection of marine SPAs in the UK can be found on the Identification of marine SPAs webpage.
Last updated: September 2020
The Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex is an SPA off the south-east coast of Scotland, incorporating the coastal waters of the Firth of Forth, the outer Firth of Tay and St Andrews Bay, but also adjacent offshore waters to the east of the Isle of May. It covers an area of c. 2,721 km2 and complements adjacent SPAs, such as the Firth of Forth SPA, the Forth Islands SPA, the Imperial Dock, Leith SPA and the Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary SPA.
During the breeding season, the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA provides feeding grounds for a large assemblage of over 100,000 seabirds, including common terns Sterna hirundo, Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea, European shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis, northern gannets Morus bassanus, Atlantic puffins Fratercula arctica, black-legged kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla, Manx shearwaters Puffinus puffinus, common guillemots Uria aalge and herring gulls Larus argentatus.
During winter, the site protects important feeding, moulting and roosting grounds of inshore waterfowl, such as red-throated divers Gavia stellata, Slavonian grebes Podiceps auritus, common eiders Somateria mollissima mollissima, long-tailed ducks Clangula hyemalis, common scoters Melanitta nigra, velvet scoters Melanitta fusca, common goldeneyes Bucephala clangula and red-breasted mergansers Mergus serrator. Many of these birds migrate to Scotland every year to overwinter or use the site as a staging post while on migration.
Outside of the breeding season, the site is also notable for its assemblage of over 40,000 overwintering seabirds, consisting of guillemots, shags and kittiwakes, but also razorbills Alca torda, little gulls Hydrocoloeus minutus, black-headed gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus, common gulls Larus canus and herring gulls.
The Firth of Forth, along with the Firth of Tay, is a major geomorphic feature formed at the end of the last glaciation. The mid Firth of Forth holds a belt of mud-rich sediments whilst along the shores sandy gravels and shell material prevail. As the estuary widens towards the outer firth, there are extensive areas of sandy and gravelly muds and fine sediments. In contrast, St Andrews Bay contains clean sands and gravel with only small areas of muddy sediments. Further offshore the seabed consists of muddy sand carried out of the estuaries, as well as gravelly sand and clean shell sand.
The area supports a wide variety of pelagic and demersal fish, including sandeel Ammodytes marinus, and crustaceans, molluscs and marine worms. The large range of prey species available for seabirds and waterbirds in shallow and sheltered waters is reflected in the diversity of bird species using the area throughout the year.
Data collected on visual aerial surveys over three winter seasons (2001/2002, 2003/2004, and 2004/2005) demonstrate that the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA supports the largest concentration of red-throated diver and common eider, and the second largest concentrations of common scoter and red-breasted merganser in Scotland. The data show that these species, together with long-tailed duck and little gull, qualify for protection.
For non-breeding waterbird species preferring areas close to the shore, shore-based count data provide better information than visual aerial surveys. Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) data were collated from the winter seasons 2006/07–2010/11 and show that the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA supports one of only two notable concentrations of Slavonian grebe in east Scotland. The site also holds the second largest concentrations of velvet scoter and common goldeneye in Scotland. The data show that all three species qualify for protection.
Data from the European Seabirds At Sea database (ESAS), collected between 1980 and 2006, indicate that during the breeding season the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA holds the largest aggregations of kittiwakes and puffins, and the second largest concentration of gannets in the UK. The data show that these species qualify for protection during the breeding season alongside Manx shearwaters, common guillemots, and herring gulls. The data also demonstrate that, during winter, European shag, razorbill and black-legged kittiwake occur in the area in numbers qualifying for protection.
For breeding European shag, population estimates are based on the number of pairs present at classification of the colony SPA (1990). Tracking data collected from individuals from the Isle of May colony between 1987 and 2010 indicate that shags use the SPA to forage, and in numbers large enough to qualify for protection.
SPA population estimates for the tern species were based on counts within the colony SPAs in 2004 and 1990 for Imperial Dock Lock and Forth Islands respectively. To determine where common and Arctic tern forage, samples of foraging tracks, collected between 2009 and 2011, were used to characterise the types of marine environment used as foraging habitat. The colony numbers indicate that both common and Arctic tern are present in the SPA with aggregations large enough to warrant protection.
Roost count data collected during the 6th national Wintering Gull Roost Survey in 2003/04–2005/06 show that herring, common and black-headed gull use the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA in sufficient numbers to qualify for protection.
Further detail on the evidence for this SPA can be found in the Evidence section.
Site location: the boundary of this SPA can be viewed via the map, which also includes the boundary co-ordinates.
Site area: c. 2,721 km2.
Site depth range: Both the Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay are shallow with often less than 10 m water depth. In the Firth of Forth, a narrow channel of 60 m water depth runs in the middle of the Firth, but most of the area has a water depth of less than 30 m. In the Firth of Tay, the water depth ranges between 10 m and 30 m.
Site boundary description: The Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA boundary is a composite boundary incorporating important areas identified for each of the qualifying species. The boundary abutting the Forth and Tay coastlines is determined by the distributions of red-throated diver, common eider, common scoter, long-tailed duck and common guillemot. This landward boundary follows mean low water springs, adjoining in some locations the Firth of Forth SPA and the Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary SPA. Common tern and Arctic tern distributions define the boundary around the Isle of May. The seaward boundary is determined by the distributions of Atlantic puffin in the north-east, and by the distribution of northern gannet in the south-east. The SPA extends into offshore waters beyond 12 nautical miles; hence it is a site for which both NatureScot and JNCC have responsibility to provide statutory advice.
Information for this site summary was adapted from documents listed in the Relevant documentation section.
Last updated: September 2020
The full overview of the data used to support site identification along with information on confidence in the occurrence and abundance of protected features is available in the Site selection Document.
Most data were collected by JNCC or data were obtained under contract to JNCC. In addition, data from the Wetland Bird Survey and from the European Seabirds at Sea database are available on request from the British Trust for Ornithology and the European Seabirds at Sea Partnership, respectively, and were collated by JNCC for relevant species and seasons. Data on the numbers and distribution of tern species during the chick rearing period were collected by JNCC, the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP), colony managers and the EU LIFE+ little tern project between 2009 and 2014.
Survey and data gathering
- Visual aerial survey (2001/02–2004/05) – To estimate numbers of non-breeding waterbird populations, line transect aerial surveys were carried out on six occasions in the Firth of Forth (14 December 2001, 26 February 2002, 5 December 2003, 16 February 2004, 12 December 2004 and 3 February 2005) and on seven occasions in the Firth of Tay (13–15 December 2001, 26 February 2002, 4 December 2003, 29 February 2004, 12 December 2004, 2 February 2005 and 18 March 2005). Further details on the methods and survey coverage are available in JNCC Report No. 567.
- Shore-based WeBS data (2006/07–2010/11) – Species close to the shore may be missed by survey from aircraft. For these species, shore-based Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) data for the Firths of Forth and Tay were collated from the five most recent years of available data at the time of the analysis. Further details on the methods and survey coverage are available in JNCC Report No. 567.
- ESAS data (1980–2006) – The European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) database is the most comprehensive and longest running data set for the distribution of seabirds at sea in north-west European waters. Boat-based transect data from 1980-2006 were extracted and analysed to identify distribution hotspots of seabirds throughout the year. Further details on the methods and survey coverage are available in JNCC Reports 431 and 461.
- Large tern visual tracking data (2009–2011) – JNCC co-ordinated a programme of visual tracking work between 2009 and 2011 to identify important foraging areas at a number of UK colonies. These surveys were conducted at Arctic tern and common tern colonies, including Imperial Dock Lock and the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, and comprised boat-based observations of individual terns during the chick-rearing period. The data informed habitat association models of tern usage to predict the likely usage of waters around the colonies in the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA. Further details on the methods and survey coverage are available in JNCC Report No. 500.
- Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP) (1990, 2004) – The population estimates for breeding common tern and Arctic tern within the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA were derived from the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP).The numbers used were those present at classification of the colony SPAs (2004 and 1990 for Imperial Dock Lock and Forth Islands respectively).
- European shag tracking data (1987–2010) – Foraging track data on 322 shags from the Isle of May were collected by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology between 1987 and 2010 using a combination of GPS loggers, VHF telemetry and compass loggers. The data were used to identify the location of the marine foraging areas and indicate that most individuals forage within 12 km from the Isle of May breeding colony and therefore in the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA. Further details on the methods and survey coverage are available in JNCC Report No. 556.
- National Winter Gull Surveys (2003/04–2005/06) – The 6th national wintering gull survey (Winter Gull Roost Survey –WINGS, 2003/04–2005/06) was a co-ordinated count of previously identified key roost sites of gulls. Black-headed gull, common gull and herring gull were counted flying into coastal, inshore water roost sites around dusk. These observations were supplemented by counts of randomly selected stretches of coastline.
Data analysis reports
- An assessment of numbers of wintering divers, seaduck and grebes in inshore marine areas of Scotland (Revised May 2018) (JNCC Report No. 567) – Visual aerial survey data, land-based count data and boat survey data were analysed to provide population sizes for each species and area of search in Scotland.
- An analysis of the numbers and distribution of seabirds within the British Fishery Limit aimed at identifying areas that qualify as possible marine SPAs (JNCC Report No. 431) – This report describes an analysis of European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) data, conducted to identify and delineate seabird aggregations within the British Fishery Limit that might qualify as SPAs. ESAS data were analysed in a three-step process involving the generation of continuous seabird density distribution maps from point data using Poisson kriging, the delineation of seabird hotspots based on the Getis-Ord Gi* statistic, and the application of UK SPA selection Stages 1.1–1.3.
- The identification of possible marine SPAs for seabirds in the UK: The application of Stage 1.1–1.4 of the SPA selection guidelines (JNCC Report No. 461) – Following on from JNCC Report No. 431, an analysis was carried out to identify additional areas that might be considered under Stage 1.4 of the UK SPA selection guidelines.
- Review of evidence for identified seabird aggregations (JNCC Report No. 537) – A detailed review and assessment of both peer-reviewed and grey literature to obtain independent data that may support, or otherwise question, a shortlisted subset of aggregations identified in JNCC Report 461.
- Quantifying usage of the marine environment by Sterna sp. around their breeding colony SPAs (JNCC Report No. 500) – This report describes work undertaken between 2009 and 2013 to quantify usage of the marine environment by the four larger tern Sterna species around their breeding colony SPAs in the UK where these remain regularly occupied.
- Determining important marine areas used by European shag breeding on the Isle of May that might merit consideration as additional SPAs (JNCC Report No. 556) – Foraging track data from European shags were collected by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology at the Isle of May between 1987 and 2010 using a combination of GPS loggers, VHF telemetry and compass loggers. The data were analysed at a resolution of 400 m across a study area, using kernel density estimation, to identify the main foraging areas utilised by shags around the Isle of May colony.
Additional relevant literature
Please be aware that although these sources contain information which is of interest in relation to this SPA, they do not necessarily represent the views of JNCC:
- Banks, A.N., Burton, N.H.K., Calladine, J.R. & Austin, G.E. 2007. Winter Gulls in the UK: population estimates from the 2003/04-2005/06 Winter Gull Roost Survey, BTO report 456.
- Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S., Doody, J.P., Davidson, N.C. & Buck, A. L. (eds). 1997. Coasts and seas of the United Kingdom. Region 4 South-east Scotland: Montrose to Eyemouth. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (Coastal Directories Series).
- Burton, N.H.K., Banks, A.N., Calladine, J.R. & Austin, G.E. 2013. The importance of the United Kingdom for non-breeding gulls: population estimates and conservation requirements. Bird Study, 60(1), 87–101.
- Camphuysen, K.J., Fox, A.D., Leopold, M.F. & Petersen, I.K. 2004. Towards standardised seabirds at sea census techniques in connection with environmental impact assessments for offshore wind farms in the U.K.: a comparison of ship and aerial sampling methods for marine birds, and their applicability to offshore wind farm assessments, NIOZ report to COWRIE, Texel, 37 pp.
- JNCC generic documents, 2016:
- Identification of possible marine SPAs for seabirds: The European Seabirds at Sea database, analysis and boundary delineation.
- Shag marine SPA identification: Data collection, collation and analysis.
- Identification of important marine areas for inshore wintering waterfowl.
- Tern marine SPA identification: Tracking data collection and analysis.
- O’Brien, S.H., Webb, A., Brewer, M.J., Reid, J.A. 2012. Use of kernel density estimation and maximum curvature to set Marine Protected Area boundaries: Identifying a Special Protection Area for wintering red-throated divers in the UK. Biological Conservation, 156, 15–21.
- Stroud, D.A., Chambers, D., Cook, S., Buxton, N., Fraser, B., Clement, P., Lewis, P., McLean, I., Baker, H. & Whitehead, S. (eds). 2001. The UK SPA network: its scope and content. JNCC, Peterborough.
If you are aware of any additional data or relevant scientific papers for this site not listed in the relevant documentation please contact us.
Last updated: September 2020
Conservation objectives set out the desired state for the protected feature(s) of an MPA. The conservation objectives for the protected features of the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA have been set based on knowledge of the condition of the protected features at the time of writing. JNCC and NatureScot will publish in due course an update of the conservation objectives for this site. The advice will be published here when it becomes available.
This information is useful if you are:
- Preparing Habitats Regulations Assessments (HRAs) of proposed plans or projects that may affect the site;
- Planning measures to maintain or restore the site and its qualifying features;
- Monitoring the condition of the qualifying features; or
- Developing, proposing or assessing an activity, plan or project that may affect the site.
Until the updated conservation objectives are available, the following preliminary conservation objectives have been drafted by NatureScot:
To avoid 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 it continues to make 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 site’s 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) To 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 Advice to Support Management document.
Advice on operations
In line with Regulation (18) of the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats, & c.) Regulations 2007 (as amended) and Regulation 33 of The Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended in Scotland), 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 Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA 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.
Direct threats considered to potentially impact the species protected by the site are fishing (mobile and static gear), shellfish and bait harvest, navigational and maintenance dredging, ports and harbour activities, recreational activities (e.g. wildfowling, jet skiing, etc.), and wind energy developments.
Any activity that can cause a pressure or pressures to which the feature may be sensitive could present a risk to the feature and affect whether conservation objectives are met; we advise competent authorities to manage these in order to reduce or remove the overall risk to the site’s qualifying features. Further advice on activities that can present a risk to the achievement of the site’s conservation objectives is available in the Advice to Support Management document.
Activities and Management
Last updated: December 2020
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 to minimise disturbance and mortality of the bird features or the habitat and food resource on which they rely. The risk of impacting the local population level needs to be avoided to ensure the site’s conservation objectives are achieved.
NatureScot and JNCC have developed an Advice to Support Management document to support discussions with stakeholders about the management of activities within this SPA. This paper considers a range of activities and developments taking place within the SPA and focuses on where we consider there could be a risk of conservation objectives not being met.
This site forms part of the networks of MPAs across the UKK and contributes to international networks such as that of the North-east Atlantic under OSPAR. As the UK is a contracting party to the OSPAR Commission, JNCC is committed to ensuring that the OSPAR MPA network is well-managed.
JNCC considers well-managed to mean the timely progress of an MPA around the 'MPA management cycle'. This involves:
- The documentation of appropriate management information – conservation objectives, advice on activities capable of affecting the protected features of a site, and spatial information on the presence and extent of the protected features of a site.
- The implementation of management measures – management actions considered necessary to achieve the conservation objectives of a site.
- Site condition monitoring programmes – collecting the information necessary to determine progress towards a site's conservation objectives.
- Assessment of progress towards conservation objectives – using available information to infer whether a site is moving towards or has achieved its conservation objectives.
Further information on the progress of the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay Complex SPA around each of the four stages in the MPA management cycle will be provided when available.
Last updated: September 2020
JNCC is currently leading on the development of options for biodiversity monitoring across all UK waters. JNCC’s advice for marine birds, which will include SPA monitoring, is anticipated to contain:
- A summary of existing monitoring schemes which provide annual trends in abundance and breeding success of seabirds; and trends in the number of waterbirds using coastal sites to breed, stopover on migration or to over-winter; along with options to improve their precision.
- Options for monitoring and surveillance of inshore and offshore aggregations of seabirds and waterbirds at sea and how these options can best be integrated with the above existing surveillance schemes (including whether co-ordinated monitoring of the existing/proposed marine SPA network can contribute to these).
- Integration with indicator development work for Marine Strategy Framework Directive and OSPAR.
Information on monitoring of this SPA will be provided here when it becomes available
More detailed information on monitoring surveys on the site will be presented here when available.
Last updated: December 2020
Under Article 12 of the EU Wild Birds Directive (2009/147/EC), Member States are required to report every six years on their progress on the implementation of the Directive. Following the UK's exit from the European Union, this section will be updated to reflect the new assessment schemes once they are in place.