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Special Protection Areas

Every summer 24 species of seabird, numbering over half a million individuals, seek out suitable breeding habitat principally on mainland cliffs and on marine islands. These breeding sites are in close proximity to the rich foraging habitat of continental shelf waters. Ireland is particularly important for its breeding populations of Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel.

Ireland is situated along the east Atlantic flyway for waterbirds that breed in more northerly latitudes. It is our typical mild and wet winters that make the wetlands of Ireland such an important resource for over three-quarters of a million of these waterbirds each year. Over 50 species of waterbird migrate here either on passage to more southerly resorts or to spend the entire winter here. They seek out the relatively undisturbed wetland areas for ice-free feeding conditions and for safe roosting opportunities. In some cases significant proportions of the biogeographic populations of waterbird overwinter here (e.g. Light-bellied Brent Goose, Black-tailed Godwit, Whooper Swan, Greenland White-fronted Goose and Ringed Plover).

Ireland’s SPA Network encompasses over 570,000 hectares of marine and terrestrial habitats. The marine areas include some of the productive intertidal zones of our bays and estuaries that provide vital food resources for several wintering wader species including Dunlin, Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit. Marine waters adjacent to the breeding seabird colonies and other important areas for seaducks, divers and grebes are also included in the network.

The remaining areas of the SPA network include inland wetland sites important for wintering waterbirds and extensive areas of blanket bog and upland habitats that provide breeding and foraging resources for species including Merlin and Golden Plover.

Agricultural land represents a share of the SPA network ranging from the extensive farmland of upland areas where its hedgerows, wet grassland and scrub offer feeding and/or breeding opportunities for Hen Harrier to the intensively farmed coastal polderland where internationally important numbers of swans and geese occur.

Coastal habitats including Machair are also represented in the network, which are of high importance for Chough and breeding Dunlin.

The majority of the breeding seabirds and wintering waterbirds are considered to be regularly occurring migratory birds; over 60% of 25 Annex I listed species that now occur in Ireland on a regular basis belong to the breeding seabird and wintering waterbird groups. This has in part led to the situation that the majority (> 80%) of Ireland’s SPAs are designated for these two bird groups. Other species listed on Annex I of the Birds Directive that are relevant to Ireland SPA network include Chough, Peregrine, Hen Harrier, Corncrake, Kingfisher, Merlin, Golden Plover, Dunlin (schinzii) and Merlin.

Ireland’s obligations under The EU Birds Directive (2009/147/EC)

Ireland is required under the terms of the EU Birds Directive (2009/147/EC) to designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the protection of endangered species of wild birds.

  • Listed rare and vulnerable species such as those mentioned above.
  • Regularly occurring migratory species, such as ducks, geese and waders.
  • Wetlands, especially those of international importance, which attract large numbers of migratory birds each year.

In Ireland a programme to identify and designate SPA sites has been in place since 1985 and a review of the Irish network of SPA sites had identified a number of sites that required re-notification.

The necessary SPA survey work has been undertaken and all of Ireland’s list of 154 SPAs have been notified to landowners and published (classified) in a fashion that is consistent with the requirements of the Birds Directive.

To date (January 2014) 140 of Ireland’s 154 SPA sites have been protected by Statutory Instrument and it is envisaged that all of Ireland’s list of SPA sites will be protected by Statutory Instrument in the coming months. The Statutory Instrument is the final step in the designation process, however all SPAs are considered protected from their date of classification.

A list of Ireland’s SPAs and Statutory Instruments, with links to the text and maps in the Irish Statute Book can be found by accessing the following:

Click here to view Statutory List of SPAs

Click here to view boundary data for SPA sites on our map-viewer