Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), known colloquially as “European sites” and/or “Natura 2000 sites”, are the means by which European legislation protects threatened or rare habitats and species.

There are some 600 sites in Ireland covering what are termed “Priority” habitats such as raised and blanket bogs and “Priority” species such as the freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera), the Killarney fern (Trichomanes speciosum), kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) and the otter (Lutra lutra).

Kingfisher, one of the bird species protected by SPA designation (Photo by Rosaine Benick)

A 2019 review of Ireland’s EU protected sites found that 46% of habitats were declining, while 53% were stable and only 2% were improving. And while the EU’s conservation laws, which cover the network of Natura 2000 (European) sites, are viewed as among the most powerful and far-reaching the EU has ever enacted, some regard them as being weakened by the provisions they include for derogations.

In his book examining the implementation of the Natura 2000 network, environmental lawyer Andrew Jackson, currently involved with Climate Case Ireland, says the network is one of the most notorious items of EC law when it comes to implementation.

Sessile oak Semi-natural woodland such as this one in Glengarriff, Co. Cork. One of the habitats protected by SACs (Photo by Stephen Mealkearn)

There are 2 sets of legislation that underpin the Natura 2000 network: the Birds Directive, enacted in 1979 and which covers SPAs, and the Habitats Directive (Annex I covers habitats; Annex II covers species), enacted in 1992 which covers priority species and habitats and their SACs. While enacted in 1992, the Habitats Directive was only transposed into Irish law almost 10 years later. Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive states that “any plan likely to have a significant effect on sites shall be subject to Appropriate Assessment (AA)”. It is this latter aspect that many ecologists find themselves conducting on behalf of consultancies carrying out environmental impact assessments of public and private projects. And if one of these projects impacts directly or indirectly on SPAs or SACs, the AA must be carried out.

The first step in conducting the AA is to screen the proposal for its effects on protected sites. If the screening establishes that there is no finding of significant effects beyond any reasonable scientific doubt, the project is allowed to go ahead and is “screened out” of the AA process. If the proposal is not screened out, a Natura Impact Statement must be prepared. This report must assess the effects of any development on the protected site(s) and how such effects should be minimised or mitigated. If the effects cannot be mitigated, alternatives to the proposed development must be sought. If there are no alternatives, the final stage is to assess if there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest for the proposal to go ahead. This is the derogation aspect under Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive and it is tightly managed by the European Commission. In this case, the Member State must take all compensatory measures necessary to ensure the overall coherence of the Natura 2000 site is protected. Due to this strict legal protection and to the strict interpretation of the legislation by the Court of Justice of the EU, a high proportion of infringement cases have arisen. It’s no surprise given that, at 18% of the EU’s land territory, the Natura 2000 network covers over 27,000 sites and is the largest protected network globally, with most of this land in private ownership.

Limestone pavements, such as this one in the Burren, Co. Clare. One of the habitats protected by SACs (Photo by Stephen Mulkearn)

Former Eastern European countries like Slovenia, Bulgaria and Croatia have the highest proportion of national territory covered by Natura 2000, while Ireland ranks among the lowest, at around 5% of land protected. EU member states are required to have management plans in place for SACs and SPAs and must report on progress to the Commission every 6 years.

According to Jackson, there were many difficulties encountered during implementation, including delays in establishing the network; it took from 1988 to 1992 for Member States to agree the Habitats Directive. Management plans for half of all Natura 2000 sites are also inadequate and there has been much national resistance, with the network given low priority at political level. Still, about 450 bird species, 1,250 plant and animal species and 233 habitat types are now protected.

Sites of Community Interest (SCIs) are sites which have yet to be formally designated but are still covered by the legislation.

Conserving Europe’s Wildlife: Law and Policy of the Natura 2000 Network of Protected Areas by Andrew L.R. Jackson is published by Routledge (2018).

Written by Stephen Mulkearn

Stephen Mulkearn is a science writer and graduate ecologist. @MulfreeS



To view the Natura 2000 network, visit: https://natura2000.eea.europa.eu/


Notable SPAs and SACs and habitats and species protected

– Lower River Shannon SAC: Marine, saltmarsh and alluvial forest habitats; Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus); Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar); and three lamprey species.

– Lough Corrib SAC: Active raised bog; limestone pavements (main picture); freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera).

– Peatland SACs: All Sphagnum species of moss; all Lycopodium (club moss) species; other rare bryophytes; the Cladonia species of lichen; rare vascular plants such as Marsh saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus).

– Rockabill to Dalkey Island SAC: Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and reef marine habitat.

– Wicklow Mountains SAC: several Priority habitats including blanket bogs and old sessile oak forests; and otter (Lutra lutra).

– Dundalk Bay SPA: 23 bird species including Brent Goose (Branta bernicla hrota), golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) and curlew (Numenius arquata).

– Cliffs of Moher SPA: 6 bird species including puffin (Fratercula arctica) and chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax). 

– Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) SPAs: Slieve Bloom, Slieve Aughty, Slieve Felim, Slieve Beagh and Mullaghanish.


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