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Special Areas

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)

In 1992 the then European Community adopted Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, known as the Habitats Directive. This is an important piece of international wildlife legislation, intended to provide member states of the European Union (EU) with a mechanism to meet their obligations under the 1979 Bern Convention and to complement the provisions of the 1979 Birds Directive. The main aim of the Habitats Directive is:

" contribute towards ensuring biodiversity through the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora in the European territory of the Member States to which the Treaty applies" (Article 2)

The 24 Articles of the Directive include a range of measures including conservation of features in the landscape that are important for wildlife, the protection of species listed in the Annexes from damage, destruction or over-exploitation, and the surveillance of natural habitats and species. The most stringent obligations relate to the selection, designation and protection of a series of sites, to be called Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

Article 3 of the Habitats Directive requires the establishment of a European network of important high-quality conservation sites that will make a significant contribution to conserving the 169 habitat types and 623 species identified in Annexes I and II of the Directive. The listed habitat types and species are those considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level. A selection of these habitats and species are given priority status in the Directive because they are considered to be particularly vulnerable and are mainly, or exclusively, found within the European Union. Each Member State is required to prepare and propose to the European Commission (EC) a national list of sites, which will be evaluated in order to form a European network of Sites of Community Importance (SCIs). These will eventually be designated by the Member States as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

These SACs, with Special Protection Areas (SPAs) classified under the Birds Directive, will be known as the Natura 2000 network. Under the Habitats and Birds Directives this European-wide network of sites is designed to promote the conservation of habitats, wild animals and plants, both on land and at sea.

In the UK the Directives have been transposed into legislation by The Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations 1994 and The Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1995, as amended (informally known as The Habitats Regulations).

Special Protection Areas (SPAs)

The agreement by EEC Member States to ratify the Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds in 1979 has been a major influence on bird conservation across Europe. The Directive has wide ranging implications which include the requirement to classify Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for two groups of birds:

  1. those listed in Annex A of the Directive which are species that are rare or known to be vulnerable to habitat change; and
  2. all regular migrating birds.

The map below shows the UK network of SPAs. It contains some 243 sites covering around 1.5 million hectares. This equates to around 6% of the UKs land surface. The distribution across the UK is uneven: 136 are in Scotland, 80 in England. Much fewer are in Wales and Northern Ireland. The largest site is the North Pennine Moors. This site encompasses 17 SSSIs and is just under 150,000 ha. The smallest site is the tiny island of Glas Eileanan in Argyll which is just 1.43 ha in area. This site was chosen because it is a breeding site for the Common Tern Sterna hirundo .

The UK Network of SPAs:


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