Swallow Sand MPA


Status: Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ)


This Marine Conservation Zone is situated in the northern North Sea where the offshore seabed is sandy with some coarser gravelly and muddy patches.


The site is low energy, providing a stable sediment habitat supporting a diverse range of marine species including worms, brittlestars, bivalves and gastropods.


More detailed site information can be found on the Summary tab.




Map displaying MPA boundary and associated protected

feature data. Visit the JNCC MPA Mapper to further

view and explore data for this MPA.


Legislation behind the designation: Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009)


Protected features

EUNIS Code: Protected Features Feature Type General Management Approach
(to achieve conservation objective)
A5.1: Subtidal coarse sediment

         Broad-Scale Habitat          


Maintain in favourable condition

A5.2: Subtidal sand

Broad-Scale Habitat 


Recover to favourable condition

North Sea glacial tunnel valley

(Swallow Hole)



Maintain in favourable condition


The acquisition of new data may result in updates to our knowledge on feature presence and extent within this site. The most up to date information is reflected on the map on this page and in JNCC’s MPA mapper and the evidence underpinning this can be viewed in the Evidence tab.


Conservation objectives
The overarching conservation objectives for the designated features of all protected sites in UK offshore waters is 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. Information on the conservation objectives relating to this MCZ is provided in the Conservation Advice tab.

Site Timeline

The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and designation of Swallow Sand MCZ. More detail can be found within the Relevant Documentation.

Relevant Documentation

The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to Swallow Sand MCZ were produced during the selection and designation process and therefore may be out of date.  This Site Information Centre is the most up to date source of information for this MPA, and will reflect any additional information gathered since these documents were produced. Further information about the Marine Conservation Zone site selection process and historic MCZ advice is available on the JNCC MCZ pages.


  • Swallow Sand MCZ Designation Order - the official description of the site designation under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. The Designation Order includes boundary coordinates, Conservation Objectives and a list of the designated features.
  • Site Summary Document - a high level summary of the key attributes of the site including boundaries, maps and descriptive text, produced as part of the site designation consultation package.




Last updated: October 2017


Information for this site summary was adapted from documents listed in the Relevant Documentation and incorporates any further information gathered since these documents were produced.


Site overview

Swallow Sand MCZ occurs in the northern North Sea region, approximately 100km offshore from the Northumberland coast.  Subtidal sand is the most abundant feature, with evidence of patches of coarse and mixed sediments and also mud.  It is the largest site designated in the first Tranche of MCZs, with depths ranging from approximately 50m to 100m, with a drop down to 150m in the channel described as Swallow Hole Glacial Tunnel Valley, situated in the north-west corner of the site.


This sediment habitat is characteristic of those found in offshore waters deeper than 30m, experiencing low tidal stress and constituting a relatively stable habitat that supports a diverse range of marine flora and fauna due to the low energy environment, which is illustrated in the EUSeaMap 'energy due to currents' layer . Following the 2012 MCZ site verification survey, analysis was completed by the British Geological Survey (BGS) and Seastar Surveys Ltd in 2014, in order to further quantify feature extent and assign biotopes to the site. 


The three main elements of the site are sand, coarse sediment and mud.  The analysis resulted in approximate proportions of 80% sand, 12% mud and 8% gravel.  The community analysis assigned biotopes to the features within the boundary. Four EUNIS Level 3 biotopes were established as well as four EUNIS Level 4 sub-biotopes.   A newly established biotope was also described including Ditrupa arietina, an annelid worm found in samples across the site. Further detail on the evidence for this MCZ can be found on the Evidence tab.


Site location: Coordinates for this MCZ can be found in the Site Summary Document, listed in the Relevant Documentation.

Site area:  Swallow Sand MCZ is a relatively large site in terms of MCZ designations, with an area of 4,746 km2. This is approximately the same area as that of its neighbouring county, Northumberland.

Site depth range: Depth range in this MCZ is approximately 50m-150m (within the Swallow Hole Glacial Tunnel Valley feature) below sea level.   

Charting Progress 2 Biogeographic Region: Region 1 – Northern North Sea.


Site boundary description
The boundary for Swallow Sand MCZ is a simple rectangle, set to include the geomorphological feature ‘Swallow Hole’ and broad-scale habitats that encompass coarse and sandy sediment ecosystems. The original site initially proposed included over 15,500km² of subtidal sand, with almost half encroaching on the Dogger Bank cSAC/SCI. This overlap was deemed unnecessary therefore a significant reduction in size was applied to form Swallow Sand MCZ as it is now presented, no longer encroaching into the Dogger Bank cSAC/SCI area.



Last updated: October 2017


The full overview of the data used to support site identification, along with information on confidence in feature presence and extent is available in the 2013 JNCC Post Consultation Advice.  JNCC will be adding relevant survey data for this MPA to our MPA interactive map in due course. Some of the data for this MCZ has been collected through JNCC funded or collaborative surveys and some through other means.  Data from these surveys/this survey provide direct evidence confirming the presence of the protected features within the site.


Survey and data gathering


Data analysis reports

  • Community analysis of Swallow Sand data (2014) - JNCC contracted Seastar Survey Ltd to complete a community analysis of offshore MCZ grab and video data to establish biotopes. The following biotopes were assigned after multivariate analysis:

SS.SMu.CFiMu.SpnMeg A5.361, Seapens and burrowing megafauna in circalittoral fine mud.

SS.SSa.OSa.Dari A5.27x: Deep circalittoral muddy sand with Ditrupa arietina, a polychaete worm.

SS.SSa.OSa.(MalDef) A5.271: Maldanid polychaetes and Eudorellopsis deformis in deep circalittoral sand or muddy sandSS.SMu.OMu.PjefThyAfil A5.376: Paramphinome jeffreysii, Thyasira spp. and Amphiura filiformis in offshore circalittoral sandy mud.

EUNIS level 3 biotopes - SS.SSa.OSa A5.27: Deep circalittoral sand SS.SMu.OMu A5.37: Deep circalittoral mud. SS.SMu.CFiMu A5.36 Circalittoral fine mud & SS.SMx.CMx A5.44 Circalittoral mixed sediment.

Note that this biotope analysis solely relates to data gathered in 2012 and does not consider samples gathered more recently in 2014.

  • Mapping seabed sediments of Swallow Sand and South-West Deeps (West) MCZs (2014) - JNCC contracted a report through the BGS in order to carry out geo-statistical analysis of sediment sample data from the MCZ verification survey of Swallow Sand MCZ.
  • EUSeaMap 'phase 1 final report' (Cameron & Askew, 2011 and updated in 2012) - A predictive seabed habitat mapping report for European waters, offering supporting information on the presence and extent of Subtidal coarse sediment and Subtidal sand within Swallow Sand MCZ.
  • Habitat and species analysis of Swallow Sand MCZ (2012) - Cefas contracted analysis of video and images within Swallow Sand MCZ through Envision Mapping Ltd in order to establish presence of biotopes. Reporting is underway and will be made available in due course. 
  • Devloping the necessary data layers for Marine Conservation Zone selection - Distribution of rock/hard substrate on UK Continental shelf (2010 ) - The British Geological Survey undertook survey work in the Southern North Sea including the location of Swallow Sand MCZ under the Defra MB0103 contract in order to produce a map of the potential distribution of rock and hard substrate.  The sampling method was also suitable for establishing presence of other features, providing further evidence for the presence and extent of sediment within the site.


Additional relevant literature

References for further supporting scientific literature consulted during the identification of this site can be found in the annexes of our advice. Please be aware that although these sources contain information in relation to this MPA, they do not necessarily represent the views of JNCC.


Knowledge gaps
If you are aware of any additional information not referred to in any of the Relevant Documentation listed on the main page, please contact JNCC


Conservation Advice


Last updated: October 2017


Conservation objectives set out the desired state for the protected feature(s) of an MPA.


The conservation objectives for the protected features of an MPA are useful if you are:

  • Planning measures to conserve the site and its protected features;
  • Monitoring the condition of the protected features; and/or
  • Developing, proposing or assessing an activity, plan or project that may affect the protected features of the site


The conservation objectives for the protected features of the MCZ are:


Subject to natural change, the broad-scale habitat is to remain in or be maintained in favourable condition, such that it's:

  • Extent is stable or increasing; and
  • Structures and functions, its quality, and the composition of its characteristic biological communities are such as to ensure that it is in a condition which is healthy and not deteriorating.


Subject to natural change, the geological interest feature is to remain in or be maintained in favourable condition, such that it's:

  • Extent, component elements and integrity are maintained;
  • Structure and functioning are unimpaired; and
  • Surface remains sufficiently unobscured for the purposes of determining whether the conditions in the points above are satisfied


More information regarding the conservation objectives for the protected features of Swallow Sand MCZ is available in the site Designation Order, In addition to the conservation objectives above, General Management Approaches (GMAs) have been set by JNCC for each feature which provide a view as to whether a feature needs to be maintained in or be brought into favourable condition i.e. recover, based on our knowledge about its condition. For more information on the General Management Approach for MCZs see Defra’s MCZ Designation Explanatory Note.


The GMAs for the protected features of the MPA are:

  • Subtidal coarse sediment: Maintain in favourable condition;
  • Subtidal sand: Recover to favourable condition; and 
  • North Sea glacial tunnel valley: Maintain in favourable condition.


More information on the GMA for the features in Swallow Sand MCZ is provided in JNCC’s Tranche 1 post-consultation advice to Defra and a summary in the Defra site factsheet .


Advice on operations 

Section 127 of the Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009) states that JNCC may provide advice and guidance regarding matters capable of damaging or otherwise affecting the protected features of an MCZ.


JNCC has published the following advice on activities which are capable of damaging or otherwise affecting protected features in MCZs:


JNCC provides a list of activities occurring within Swallow Sand MCZ and information on management within the Activities and Management tab. JNCC has provided this to aid the cumulative assessment of impacts of human activities within the site.  While every attempt has been made to ensure this information is accurate and kept up-to-date, the list is not to be considered exhaustive or definitive. The list does not, for example, include activities occurring off-site which may also be capable of affecting the protected features.


For the most up-to-date information about the biological communities present within the site and their spatial distribution, please see the Evidence tab. Sensitivity information for the protected features within the site can be found in a Technical Report (Tillen et al., 2010) commissioned by Defra to support the MCZ designation process.


The information contained within the data and evidence tab, the activities and management tab, the Tillen et al., 2010 report and the advice listed above on activities which are capable of damaging or otherwise affecting the protected features in Tranche One MCZs are useful if you are:

  • Carrying out any activity that may impact the protected features of the site and need to find out how to operate within the law;
  • An authority providing advice on specific proposals; and/or 
  • An authority responsible for putting management measures in place.


Our scientific understanding of the ecology of the protected features of the site and how activities can affect them may change over time. Similarly the activities taking place within the site may also change over time. JNCC’s conservation advice will be kept under review and will be periodically updated to reflect this. Further information on JNCC’s conservation advice work is available on the offshore MPA conservation advice webpage.


Activities and Management


Last updated: June 2017


Management status: Progressing towards being well managed


Progress is ongoing with the recommendation of fisheries management proposals and ongoing site condition monitoring work will be required in order to conclude with confidence as to the degree to which the site is moving towards or achieving its conservation objectives.


This site forms part of the UK's contribution to the OSPAR commissions network of MPAs and the Emerald network established under the Bern Convention. As the UK is a signatory to the OSPAR commission, JNCC are committed to ensuring that the OSPAR MPA network is ‘well-managed’ by 2020.


JNCC consider ‘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 sites conservation objectives.

4)    Assessment of progress towards conservation objectives – using available information to infer whether or not a site is moving towards or has achieved its conservation objectives.


The sub-sections that follow provide an account of the progress of Swallow Sand MCZ around each of these four stages in the MPA management cycle.


The documentation of appropriate management information

  • The conservation objectives and advice on activities capable of affecting the conservation status of the protected features of this site are available under the conservation advice tab.
  • JNCC are in the process of improving our MPA conservation advice packages. Further information is available on our conservation advice pages.
  • Spatial information on the presence and extent of the protected feature of this MPA is available via JNCC's MPA mapper.
  • JNCC are in the process of developing downloadable MPA data packages where appropriate permissions to share datasets are in place.


The implementation of management measures

This section details progress towards the implementation of management measures for activities considered capable of affecting the conservation status of the protected features of the site. The protected features of the site are considered to be sensitive to pressures associated with fishing and ‘licensable’ activities.



  • Vessel monitoring data indicates there are various types of demersal trawling occurring within the MCZ. Effort is concentrated in the north-west corner around the area identified as mud habitat. Some pelagic fishing is known to occur within the site, but the features of the site are not considered sensitive to fishing activity with no bottom contact. UK and non-UK registered vessels have been active in the area. 
  • The site falls outside the UKs 12 nautical mile limit and is to be exclusively managed under the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
  • The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) are the lead authority regarding the implementation of, and compliance with, any measures to managing fishing activity. Further information on progress is available via the MMO's MPA strategic management table. 


Licensable activities

  • There are three dormant pipelines and three oil wells within the boundary of Swallow Sand MCZ.
  • Licensable activities such as oil and gas exploration and production taking place or that may take place within this MPA are managed in accordance with the clauses set out under section 127 of The Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009). Under this clause, JNCC have a statutory responsibility to advice the regulator on developments that are capable of affecting (other than insignificantly) the protected features of the MPA and that may hinder the achievement of the sites conservation objectives. JNCC consider the existing marine licensing process is sufficient to ensure the management of licensable activities taking place, or that could take place in the future, on the protected features of this MPA.
  • For further information please see The Marine Management Organisations' guidance on marine conservation zones and marine licensing.
  • Further information on JNCC's role in the provision of advice for licensed activities in the UK offshore area is available on JNCC's offshore industries advice webpage



  • There is a low density of commercial shipping and cruising routes in this area and due to its offshore location, vessel anchorage is unlikely.
  • Under international law (UNCLOS, Article 17), ships have a right of innocent passage at sea, including in areas designated as MPAs. The pressures associated with shipping activity within Swallow Sand MCZ are not considered likely to impact the protected features of the site.


Military activity

  • There is limited military activity in the south-west corner of the site.
  • The MoD has incorporated all designated MPAs into their Environmental Protection Guidelines (Maritime) and wider Marine Environmental and Sustainability Assessment Tool. These guidelines are used to manage MoD activity to minimise the associated risks to the environment.


Site condition monitoring

A site condition monitoring survey took place in 2016 to form the first point in a monitoring time series which will be used to determine the rate and direction of change over time in the condition of the protected features of the site. Further information will be made available under the monitoring tab in due course.


Assessment of progress towards conservation objectives

No long-term condition monitoring data are available to determine whether the MPA is moving towards or has reached its conservation objectives. The site has a ‘maintain’ conservation objective based on the findings of a vulnerability assessment (exposure to the activities associated with pressures to which the protected features of the site are considered sensitive). This suggests the site may already be achieving or moving towards its conservation objectives. Site condition monitoring time-series data would improve our confidence in this assessment. Further information will be provided under the assessment tab as it becomes available.




Last updated: October 2017


JNCC is currently leading on the development of a strategy for biodiversity monitoring across all UK waters, to include MPA monitoring. For MPAs, data and evidence collected from monitoring activities will aim to:

  • Enable assessment of condition of the features within sites;
  • Enable assessment of the degree to which management measures are effective in achieving the conservation objectives for the protected features;
  • Support the identification of priorities for future protection and/or management; and,
  • Enable Government to fulfil its national and international assessment and reporting commitments in relation to MPAs and help identify where further action may be required.


Information on monitoring of this MPA will be provided when it becomes available.




Last updated: October 2017


Assessments of the condition of designated features in offshore MPAs are required to report against our legal obligations. Ideally these assessments should be based on observed data, and then measured against targets for predefined indicators. However, for MPAs in offshore waters we do not always have the appropriate information to be able to do so. This is particularly true for seabed habitats, which are the main type of feature designated for protection in offshore MPAs. 


To address these challenges, JNCC has been an active partner in the development of new approaches and tools for the assessment of habitats and species for a variety of national and international status reports. They include the second cycle of the Conservation Status Assessment reports under the EU Habitats Directive, Charting Progress 2 (CP2) and the OSPAR Quality Status Report (QSR). JNCC continues to develop and pilot tools for the assessment of marine habitats and species in offshore waters to improve the quality and transparency of our offshore MPA assessments, and contribute to the monitoring of marine biodiversity in UK waters. These tools cover methods for producing interim assessments of site features and their responses to pressures, as well as developing more robust indicators for determining condition of the features.


Under the UK Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009), JNCC is required to report to Ministers on the degree to which the conservation objectives of the protected features of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) have been achieved.  Every 6 years from 2012, the Marine Act requires a report setting out how MCZs have performed against their conservation objectives, as well as the effectiveness of the network as a whole. The assessments of features within MPAs will also feed into six yearly reports on the state of the marine environment under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), which aims to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020.



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