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20 Oct 2016

The great value of Special Protection Areas

Posted in Blog posts

I’m very pleased to publish this blog jointly with the fantastic Kate Jennings, RSPB’s Head of Site Conservation Policy.

Today, the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) has published the first phase of a review of the UK network of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) – special sites which are designated and protected under the European Birds Directive.

SPAs, together with Special Areas for Conservation (SACs)- sites protected under the sister Habitats Directive- have been fundamental to protecting our most important habitats and species and have long formed the cornerstone of the UK’s attempts to protect and restore biodiversity.

This review – believed to be the world’s first review of an entire national protected area network against an explicit baseline – has been prepared by a Scientific Working Group convened by UK Government to provide advice on the protection of the most important sites for birds in the UK.  The report’s contributors include representatives of the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Scottish Environment Link.

The report reviews the network of SPAs that protect the rare, vulnerable and migratory species requiring special conservation measures under the Birds Directive, and assesses the extent to which the current network addresses their needs.

The report highlights welcome progress in the designation of SPAs since the last review, published in 2001, with the addition of sites on land and coast from the Belfast Lough in Northern Ireland and the Thames Basin Heaths in England to the Cairngorm Massif in Scotland and Puffin Island in Wales, and from the 151 individual species/season assessments undertaken, concludes that the existing suite of SPA is sufficient to contribute to the effective conservation of 64 species, from golden eagles and corncrakes to breeding gannets and stone curlews.

However, it also highlights how much remains to be done for the SPA network to be complete for all species:

  • There are seven species for which SPAs are required but for which no sites have yet been protected (including spoonbill and Montagu’s harrier);
  • The current suite of SPAs is considered insufficient for 87 species including bitterns, curlews, nightjars and pochards.
  • A review of SPA provision at sea is required for at least 49 species  from puffin and shag to Balearic shearwater and velvet scoter;
  • The boundaries of existing sites for 17 species need to be reviewed to ensure they provide for the needs of the species they protect (for example to include both feeding areas and breeding/roosting sites);
  • Reviews of management of existing SPA for 15 species, including Bewick’s swans, are required because of declines in their population within these critical sites; and
  • The review highlights the critical need to continue support for national surveillance programmes (e.g. the Wetland Bird Survey (‘WeBS’) run by the British Trust for Ornithology and funded by JNCC, the RSPB and the BTO and the Goose & Swan Monitoring Programme, run by WWT and funded by WWT, JNCC and SNH), and the need to address significant data gaps for some groups of species.

Publication of this review is to be warmly welcomed, and represents a huge amount of work over many years by many experts, most notably David Stroud, Senior Ornithologist at JNCC who has also led the scientific effort in the two previous reviews of the UK’s SPA network, and the efforts of the huge numbers of experienced volunteers who collect much of the vital data on bird populations across the UK upon which the review is based.

The review not only provides clear advice on the actions required to ensure that the UK SPA network is sufficient for all species, it also sets out pioneering ways of objectively assessing the state of these networks that could underpin more comprehensive reviews of the SPA network across the EU.

However, advice is only as good as the action taken to implement it.

Disappointingly, despite some notable progress, many of the recommendations from the previous review in 2001 remain unimplemented, and the current review highlights the scale of action still required to ensure that the UK’s internationally important populations of birds receive legal protection they deserve.

Furthermore, the report draws attention to the need for additional conservation measures for many species – SPAs are intended to protect the very best sites for our rare, vulnerable and migratory bird species, but in many cases their effective conservation will also require action elsewhere in the wider environment.

As nature knows no boundaries it’s vital that birds are given the same protection here as they are overseas. In light of Brexit, it’s essential that any emerging legal protection for our most special places for wildlife across the UK is consistent with international best practice, and at least equivalent to that currently provided by the EU Birds Directive.

However, it remains essential to identify, designate and manage these sites to ensure the UK’s international responsibilities and obligations are met by Governments across the UK and to commit to their effective protection as legislation is developed following the EU referendum. To do any less would risk the long term survival of threatened birds for which the UK has now and will continue to have a global duty to act.