The objective of this designation is the protection of natural habitats, fauna and flora. This designation type confers protection against any project which is likely to have significant adverse impacts on the integrity of the site. It is only reasons of overriding public interest that will allow a project to impact upon a SPA. The SPA Regulations prohibit pollution, deterioration of habitat, and disturbance to birds using the area.
In 1979 the European Community adopted the ‘conservation of wild birds’(79/409/EEC), this directive is usually refered to as the Birds Directive. Transposed into Irish Law by the 1985 Wild Birds Regulations, strengthened by the 1992 EU Habitats Directive and the 1997 Natural Habitats Regulations. SPAs focus on the protection of areas which bird species traditionally use as nesting, breeding or over wintering sites. Ireland is internationally important for its waterfowl and seabird populations. Swans, geese, ducks and waders occur in internationally important numbers in winter on coastal and freshwater wetlands. Breeding waders and wildfowl occur in significant numbers on wetlands. Coastal areas and islands support breeding seabird colonies.
Under the Regulations it is a requirement for member states to identify areas to be given special protection for rare or vulnerable species listed in Annex 1 (Article 4.1) and for regularly occurring migratory species (Article 4.2) and for the protection of wetlands.
Irelands SPA designated sites now form part of the NATURA 2000 network of European protected sites. By 1998 Ireland had designated 120 sites which covered about 200.000 ha. or nearly 3% of territory. Most of the sites are estuaries, coastal bays, inlets, offshore islands and inland lakes. At least 90% of this area is state owned foreshore, inland lakes, nature reserves and National Parks.
The current network of designated SPAs consists of coastal areas (marine cliffs, offshore islands, mudflats and sandflats) and inland lakes, which are not subject to the range of pressures and threats of land based sites. As the SPA network expands to inland sites additional threats and potential conflicts will undoubtedly arise.
The responsible authorities in Ireland for SPAs is the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.
The Joint Nature Conservation Committee in Britain has published SPA selection guidelines which can be used in Ireland, they include:
- An area used regularly by 1% or more of the all Ireland population of a species listed in Annex 1 of the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC as amended) in any season.
- An area used regularly by 1% or more of the biogeographical population of a regularly occurring migratory species (other than those listed in Annex 1) in any season.
- An area used regularly by over 20,000 waterfowl (waterfowl as defined by the Ramser Convention) or 20,000 seabirds in any season.
- An area which meets the requirements of one or more of the stage 2 guidelines in any season, where the application of stages 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.
- 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.
- Species Range: Areas selected for a given species provide as wide a geographic coverage across the species.
- Breeding Success: Areas of higher breeding success than others are favoured for selection.
- History of Occupancy: Areas known to have a longer history of occupation or use by the relevant species are favoured for selection.
- Multi Species Areas: Areas holding or supporting the larger number of qualifying species under Article 4 of the Directive are favoured for selection.
- Naturalness: Areas comprising natural or semi natural habitats are favoured for selection over those which do not.
- 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.