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Seas off Foula SPA

Status: Special Protection Area (SPA)

The Seas off Foula SPA lies north of the Scottish mainland and about 15 km west of Shetland, covering the waters surrounding Foula. The site protects important feeding grounds for seabirds breeding on the island and beyond, including the largest marine aggregation of great skuas in the UK.


Lying about 15 km west of mainland Shetland, the Seas off Foula SPA covers the waters around and to the north-west of Foula. This island hosts more than 190,000 breeding seabirds, making it one of the largest seabird colonies in Britain. The marine SPA protects important feeding grounds for great skuas, fulmars, gulls and auks that breed on the island.

More than 5% of the British great skua population captures its food in this part of the north-east Atlantic. Small seabirds, such as auks and small gulls, feed mainly on energy-rich sandeels in the waters surrounding Foula. Larger species, such as large gulls and great skuas, supplement their diets with discarded fish and fisheries waste from fishing vessels in the area, or by stealing prey from other seabirds.

At the colony and the waters immediately surrounding it, the seabirds breeding on Foula are protected by the Foula SPA. The Seas off Foula SPA complements this colony SPA, ensuring that the marine foraging habitat is equally protected.

More detailed site information can be found in the Summary section below.


Map displaying the Seas off Foula SPA boundary. Visit JNCC's MPA Mapper to further view and explore data for this SPA.



Legislation behind the designation: The Seas off Foula 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.


Protected Features

Feature Feature Type % population Conservation Objectives
great skua Stercorarius skua (breeding)


5.53% GB
(3.3% biogeographic)1

great skua Stercorarius skua (non-breeding)

Migratory 1.11% GB2 Maintain
assemblage of breeding seabirds Migratory [N/A; >20,000 birds] Maintain
assemblage of seabirds, non-breeding Migratory [N/A; > 20,000 birds] Maintain
northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis (breeding)  Migratory 0.56% GB2
(but >2,000 ind)
northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis
Migratory N/A2
(but >2,000 ind)
Arctic skua Stercorarius parasiticus (breeding) Migratory 3.47% GB2 Maintain
common guillemot Uria aalge (breeding) Migratory 0.42% GB2
(but >2,000 ind)
common guillemot Uria aalge (non-breeding) Migratory N/A2
(but >2,000 ind)

Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica (breeding)

Migratory 0.86% GB2
(but >2,000 ind)

1 Biogeographic population size was added where species qualified based on this under Stage 1.2 of the Site Selection Guidelines.

2 To be a named component of a seabird assemblage a species needs to be present with at least 1% of it’s GB population, or with >2,000 individuals.

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.


Conservation Objectives

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.


Site Timeline

The diagram provides a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and classification of the Seas off Foula SPA.

October 2016
Public consultation. Site becomes a proposed SPA.
December 2018
Site formally recommended to government as a SPA.
December 2020
Site classified as a SPA.


Relevant Documentation

The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to the Seas off Foula 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.

Information about the general UK SPA site selection process is available on the SPA 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

Site overview

The Seas off Foula SPA (SPA) is located in Scottish marine waters, north of the Scottish mainland and Orkney, and about 15 km west of Shetland. It covers 3,412 km2 of inshore and offshore waters and surrounds the island of Foula and the Foula SPA.

The site protects five species of seabird: great skua Stercorarius skua, northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis and common guillemot Uria aalge throughout the year, and Arctic skua Stercorarius parasiticus and Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica during the breeding season. These species jointly form important seabird assemblages with more than 20,000 individuals present at the site.

Tracking of great skuas breeding on Foula shows that these individuals use the marine areas close by their breeding colonies for foraging, particularly to the west of Shetland, indicating that there is a strong link between great skuas breeding on Foula and the marine Seas off Foula SPA. Given the large foraging ranges of great skuas and northern fulmars, individuals from other breeding colonies on Orkney and Shetland could potentially use the SPA as a foraging site, too.

The waters around Shetland, including the Seas off Foula SPA, were once areas of high sandeel productivity. Since the 1980s, however, sandeel stocks have declined markedly and the reduced availability of this important prey species has had an impact on many of the seabirds breeding on Foula. Nevertheless, these remain important spawning and nursery grounds for sandeels, with the sandeel remaining an essential part of the diet of local seabirds. Sandeel spawning areas immediately south of the Seas off Foula were designated as the North-west Orkney Marine Protected Area in 2014. Newly hatched sandeel larvae are likely to migrate from the MPA to Shetland waters where they settle and provide prey for larger predatory fish and seabirds.

In the SPA, the combined effect of currents and waves creates moderate-energy seabed environments in the west, and high-energy seabed environments in the east of the site. The seabed is a mosaic of subtidal coarse sediments and moderate-energy circalittoral rock, with some sand and muddy sand habitats in the north-west. In addition, the Shetland-Orkney thermal front overlaps with Seas off Foula, which might create relatively predictable foraging areas for seabirds. Water depths range between 50 m and 150 m, with shallower areas adjacent to the island.

Seabird population estimates and important usage areas for seabirds in the Seas of Foula SPA are based on data from the European Seabirds at Sea database (ESAS) collected between 1980–2006. The analysis of ESAS data indicates that the SPA holds the largest marine aggregation of breeding great skua in UK waters; it is the only area where this species regularly occurs with more than 1% of it’s biogeographic population. Great skua therefore meet the Stage 1.2 SPA selection guidelines for migratory species. All other qualifying species occur with > 2,000 individuals or > 1% of their GB population in the site and qualify as parts of the breeding and/or non-breeding assemblages under Stage 1.3 of the guidelines.

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. 3,412 km2.

Site depth range: In the Seas off Foula SPA. water depths range between 50 m and 150 m; shallow areas with less than 50 m depth occur only around Foula and 10 km north of it, while depths of more than 150 m are only reached in the north-west. The medium and shallow parts of the area are therefore within the depth range of 30–80 m favoured by sandeel.

Site boundary description: The seaward boundary has been set based on the extent of the great skua aggregation in the area. The landward boundary of the Seas off Foula SPA is adjacent to the existing Foula SPA. 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: April 2018

Site-specific data

Data were requested from the European Seabirds at Sea Partnership and analysed by the JNCC.  The full overview of how these data were used to support site identification along with information on confidence in the protected features occurrence and abundance is available in the SPA Site Selection Document.


Survey and data gathering

  • 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.


Data analysis reports


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:


Knowledge gaps

If you are aware of any additional data or relevant scientific papers for this site not listed in the relevant documentation please contact us.


Conservation Advice

Last updated: September 2020

Conservation Objectives

Conservation objectives set out the desired state for the protected feature(s) of an SPA. The conservation objectives for the protected features of the Seas off Foula SPA are 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 JNCC:


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 site’s qualifying features:

  1. 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;
  2. 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 Draft Conservation Objectives and Advice on Operations 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 Seas off Foula 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.

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 species might also be sensitive to 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 SPA 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 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.

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.


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.

JNCC and Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot) 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 UK 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:

  1. 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.
  2. The implementation of management measures – management actions considered necessary to achieve the conservation objectives of a site.
  3. Site condition monitoring programmes – collecting the information necessary to determine progress towards a site's conservation objectives.
  4. 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 Seas off St Kilda 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 coordinated 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.


Monitoring surveys

More detailed information on monitoring surveys in 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.


Published: .

This Site Information Centre (SIC) was created and last substantially updated prior to the end of the Transition Period following the UK’s exit from the European Union (31 December 2020). Therefore some of the content may still refer to EU legislation and management proposals or commitments which were correct at the time that the content was last updated. These references will be revised as necessary when the SIC is next substantially revised. Requirements through EU legislation are being retained in the UK so existing environmental protections and standards remain, and the protection given to habitats and species continues.

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