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Special Protection Areas – overview

Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are protected areas for birds in the UK classified under:

  • the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and the Conservation (Natural Habitats, & c.) Regulations 2010 (as amended) in England, Scotland and Wales,
  • the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985; the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985; the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1995 (as amended) in Northern Ireland,
  • the Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 in the UK offshore area, and
  • other legislation related to the uses of land and sea.

SPAs are classified in accordance with European Council Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds, known as the Birds Directive. SPAs protect rare and vulnerable birds (as listed on Annex I of the Birds Directive), and regularly occurring migratory species. 

SPAs, together with Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), form the UK’s contribution to the Bern Convention's Emerald Network of protected areas, known as Areas of Special Conservation Interest (ASCIs).

JNCC is responsible for advising the UK Government and Devolved Administrations on aspects of the classification and management of SPAs from a UK perspective, including reporting on the implementation of the UK SPA programme and the status and trends of protected bird species. JNCC also has specific responsibilities for advising on the classification and management of SPAs in the UK offshore area. Further information on UK offshore SPAs and JNCC’s Marine Protected Areas (MPA) work can be found on our MPA pages.


SPA network summary

Special Protection Areas in the UK as of 26 March 2019. UK figures exclude two SPAs which have been submitted in the UK Overseas Territory of Gibraltar.

Classified SPAs submitted to the EU


Number of sites1

Area (ha)2




England / Offshore



England / Scotland



England / Wales



England / Wales / Offshore



Northern Ireland












Wales / Offshore









1 These statistics exclude 12 sites listed that have been subsumed into larger sites. These sites (totalling 14,530 hectares) are however retained in lists of SPAs maintained by the European Union because they have never been formally declassified.

2 Site area figures for each country relate to both the terrestrial and inshore domain. The figures have been calculated from GIS to allow for overlapping SPAs such as the Cairngorms Massif in Scotland. There may therefore be slight discrepancies between these and the equivalent figures from previous tranches which were calculated from the SPA data forms.


Latest changes to the SPA network

New potential Special Protection Areas (pSPAs) for classification or updates to existing SPAs are submitted in tranches. Information on the latest changes to the UK SPA list in the most recent tranche are provided below. Information on changes within historical tranches is available in The National Archives.

Tranche 59 – submitted 31 October 2019


EU code Site name Country Main reason(s) for inclusion in Tranche 59
UK9002471 Troup, Pennan and Lion's Heads S Quality and importance information (field 4.2) updated to correspond with the ecological information
UK9002371 Rousay S Species added to bring the Standard Data Form in line with the national site citation document (field 3.2)
UK9001623 Cromarty Firth S Species added to bring the Standard Data Form in line with the national site citation document (field 3.2); 'degree of isolation' grading updated (field 3.2)
UK9001622 Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet S Species added to bring the Standard Data Form in line with the national site citation document (field 3.2)
UK9001624 Inner Moray Firth S Species added to bring the Standard Data Form in line with the national site citation document (field 3.2); 'degree of isolation' grading updated (field 3.2)
UK9002211 Loch of Strathbeg S Species added to bring the Standard Data Form in line with the national site citation document (field 3.2); 'population type' updated (field 3.2)
UK9004031 Montrose Basin S Species added to bring the Standard Data Form in line with the national site citation document (field 3.2); 'degree of isolation' grading updated (field 3.2)
UK9001625 Moray and Nairn Coast S Species added to bring the Standard Data Form in line with the national site citation document (field 3.2); 'degree of isolation' grading updated (field 3.2)

Tranche 58 – submitted 26 March 2019


EU code

Site name

Main reason(s) for inclusion in Tranche 58


Dyfi Estuary / Aber Dyfi

Marine area % added; habitat classes updated


SPA site information

JNCC maintains site information for all SPAs in the UK.

The list of UK SPAs includes each site’s UK country location, area and classification status. The list also links to each SPA’s Standard Data Form. 

In addition, a spreadsheet of UK SPAs and their qualifying bird species, other published data relevant to SPAs, and a spatial layer of SPA site boundaries is available from the UK Protected Area Datasets for Download webpage. Site boundaries are not available for potential SPAs. JNCC also manages an online library of UK and EU case law relating to SPA classification and management.

Site information for SPAs classified in the UK Overseas Territory of Gibraltar is available on the Protected Areas in Gibraltar webpage.


SPA classification

In the UK, the first SPAs were identified and classified in the early to mid-1980s. Classification has since progressed, and the regularly updated UK SPA network summary table (above) provides an overview of both the number of classified SPAs and those approved by the UK Government and Devolved Administrations that are currently in the process of being classified – these are known as potential SPAs, or pSPAs. As a matter of Government policy, potential SPAs are treated as if formally classified. 

JNCC, on behalf of the UK Government and Devolved Administrations, published SPA Selection Guidelines for use in the UK (summarised below).  Each SPA has been selected according to the principles laid out in the selection guidelines. At the time of classification two documents are produced; the citation and the Natura 2000 Standard Data Form. Both are legal documents. The former is used within the UK to consult with the public at classification and lists the qualifying species for which a SPA has been selected and is managed. The latter is derived from the citation and is the standard way in which UK SPA network data are registered by the UK Government and Devolved Administrations.

SPA citations are available from the relevant country agency website (Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales, and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland), as can information on the Sites, or Areas, of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI or ASSI) that underpin most SPAs.


Selection guidelines for SPAs

The SPA site selection process involves two stages. Stage 1 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.


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.


The SPA selection guidelines are provided within the the second SPA review.


SPA condition & reporting

The UK’s Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies (SNCBs) are responsible for assessing the condition of SPAs. This is carried out through Common Standards Monitoring.

Every six years, the results of this monitoring within SPAs are used to inform a UK-wide assessment of the status and trends of birds for which these sites are protected. This is undertaken by the five country nature conservation bodies (CNCBs) on behalf of UK Government and the Devolved Administrations. This feeds into a broader assessment of the status and trends of these species across their whole UK distribution (i.e. both inside and outside sites). There is also a general implementation report that summarises the main work and achievements in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and UK offshore, including some specific information on SPAs and their contribution to the national/UK site network.

The reports are accessed through JNCC’s European Reporting webpage.


SPA reviews

The UK’s nature conservation agencies, including the JNCC, have undertaken three reviews of the UK SPA network undertaken at roughly decadal intervals. 


First Review (1980s)

First SPA ReviewThe First Review
 was undertaken by the Nature Conservancy Council and published in 1990.  This established the scope of the network in Great Britain and stimulated the progressive classification of these sites.  Species and habitat details from the sites listed in the first review were published in 1992. 

A complementary All-Ireland SPA review was commissioned from JNCC by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Dublin and the Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland), Belfast and published in 1993. 


Second Review (1990s)

Second SPA ReviewJNCC and the country nature conservation bodies were requested by the UK Government to undertake a further review of the network in the mid-1990s.  This Second Review – based on data from the 1990s – revised our understanding of the UK SPA network, both in terms of the number of sites selected and the species that qualify within these sites.  

At completion of the second SPA Review, government consulted widely with other stakeholders on the results. In response to this consultation the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) convened an advisory group to take forward further consideration of SPA network development; the UK SPA & Ramsar (Avian) Scientific Working Group (SPAR SWG).


Third review (2000s)

Third SPA ReviewA Third Review – based on data from the 2000s – was undertaken by the SPAR SWG and published by JNCC in 2016.  This assessed change since the 1990s and provided advice to government with respect to a range of issues related to the future development of the network. In particular, and given the rapidity of climate-related changes in bird distribution that are occurring, it recommended that further reviews be undertaken – at approximately decadal intervals – such that appropriate adaptation measures can be undertaken.


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