Marine SPA identification


How are SPAs selected?

For consistency the established UK SPA selection guidelines developed for the terrestrial environment were also applied in the marine environment.  The Birds Directive dictates that the selection process of marine SPAs is purely based upon scientific criteria - socioeconomic, management, or political considerations are not applied at this stage.

The UK SPA site selection process involves two stages: The first stage identifies areas which are thought to regularly hold important numbers of birds.  The second stage uses one or more of the ecological judgements such as species range and multi-species areas, to identify the most suitable areas.


Marine birds in UK waters

Common eider in flight © Bed DeanA total of 106 species of bird are thought to use UK waters of which 45 are thought to occur in numbers greater than 50 each year.  All of these 45 species except one (black guillemot) are classed as a rare or vulnerable (Annex I) or regularly occurring migratory species by the Birds Directive, which means that there are 44 species for which the JNCC have undertaken surveys and analysis in UK waters to identify important aggregations which are suitable for consideration as part of a network of marine SPAs.  These species have differing ecologies, behaviour, distribution and abundance and occur in UK waters at different times of the year.  In order to facilitate analysis across these differing ecologies, seven main strands of survey and analysis were identified which would capture the most important seasons for the relevant species.

The survey and analysis methods are described fully within reports which are part of the JNCC report series.  Methods used by JNCC are summarised very briefly below. More detail can be found in a series of documents which can be accessed from the relevant paragraphs below (which describe the data collection and analysis methods but without the detail or extensive results sections contained within the JNCC reports).


Marine extensions to existing seabird breeding colony SPAs

Guillemot and Razorbill © Jamie Coleman Almost all species of seabird that breed in the UK have some of their breeding sites protected via a network of breeding colony SPAs (the only exception is black guillemot, as it is not considered migratory in the UK, nor is it listed on Annex I).  Such protection is largely limited to land above mean low water (or mean low water springs in Scotland).  To identify those areas of the sea adjacent to breeding colonies that are important to seabirds for essential resting and maintenance activities, JNCC carried out spatial analyses of survey data collected around selected seabird colonies.  This allowed JNCC to make recommendations for generic marine extensions that could be applied for six species. Further information is available in JNCC reports 329 and 406.


Inshore wintering waterbird aggregations

Many waterbirds aggregate at specific coastal areas such as bays, firths and estuaries during the winter.  Areas that could potentially contain qualifying aggregations of waterfowl in the non-breeding season were identified from the ornithological literature and existing survey data, in order to focus survey effort. More information can be found in the Marine Natura 2000 SPA network paper. These areas are termed ‘Areas of Search’ (AoS).  An extensive programme of visual aerial surveys with support from shore-based and boat counts has been undertaken within these AoS around the UK to identify the most important of these aggregations, covering a total of 17 species. Further information is available in JNCC reports 374, 388, 498, 555, 567, 574, 575 and 576.


Seabird aggregations

This analysis used the extensive European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) database, which stores observations of seabirds from boat or aircraft in seas across Europe (Pollock and Barton 2006).  It identified hotspots of seabirds out to the British Fishery Limit for seasons covering the key stages in the species annual cycle where they occur in UK waters (such as summer, breeding or winter).  This analysis covered 31 species of seabirds.

For species not adequately covered in these two types of analysis, targeted surveys were carried out to capture suitable data, as described below. Further information is available in JNCC reports 431, 461 and 537.


Foraging areas for breeding larger TernsArctic tern © Miha Podlogar

Terns are seabirds and as such were analysed as part of the ESAS analysis.  However insufficient data was available in the ESAS database because these birds are small and difficult to identify to species level when surveyed by aircraft or from boat.  JNCC collected visual tracking data[1] as a means to identify the most important at-sea foraging areas around important tern breeding colonies. This analysis covered four species of tern which breed in the UK: Arctic, common, roseate and Sandwich terns. Further information is available in JNCC report 500.


Foraging areas for breeding little terns

Based on available literature, little terns do not forage far from the breeding colony and do not travel more than 5km out to sea. JNCC undertook shore-based and boat surveys to assess the rate at which little terns were found at increasing distances along the shore and out to sea from the colony.

Further information is available in JNCC report 548.


Foraging areas for breeding red-throated divers

Red-throated divers breed close to small lochans around Scotland’s coastal areas and islands.  They forage in inshore waters with limited foraging ranges.  Boat-based surveys collected data which was used to identify the most important at-sea foraging areas around important red-throated diver breeding areas. Further information is available in JNCC report 541.


European shags

The European shag feeds relatively close inshore both during the breeding season and non-breeding seasons.  It has therefore not been detected sufficiently by offshore boat surveys as part of ESAS database.  Additionally, JNCC aerial surveys have tended to exclude it as a target species because of difficulties in distinguishing between great cormorant and European shag.  The approach taken for shag was to identify important areas based on existing data from a variety of sources.  Areas have been identified based on the seabird aggregations analysis described above (where surveys were undertaken sufficiently close to the shore), visual aerial survey (described above) where observers were able to identify the species, and tracking data collected by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). Further information is available in JNCC report 556.


[1] Visual surveys used a high speed boat to follow the bird’s path from the colony to the foraging areas during the breeding season.