European Marine Sites

Cliffs and coast at Flamborough Head, Yorkshire is protected for its marine wildlife under European law (Image: Kirsten Smith)

European Marine Sites are areas at sea protected by European law for their special wildlife and natural habitats.

These include Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which together form part of a Europe-wide network of protected areas on land and at sea (the ‘Natura2000’ network) designed to safeguard the wildlife most at risk. See below for more information on SACs and SPAs. In the UK Natura2000 sites include such iconic areas as Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, and Lyme Bay in Devon.

Both SACs and SPAs play a critical conservation role by providing wildlife refuges for nationally threatened species and habitats. They are a key part of a network of Marine Protected Areas in UK waters.

What's a Special Area of Conservation?

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are areas which have been given special protection under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. They provide increased protection to a variety of wild animals, plants and habitats and are a vital part of global efforts to conserve the world’s biodiversity.

Coastal and marine SACs in the UK include Cardigan Bay (Wales), Rathlin Island (Northern Ireland), the Darwin Mounds (Scotland) and Lyme Bay (in England). Further information about SACs is available on the Natural England website.

What's a Special Protection Area?

SPAs are areas identified as of international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or migration of rare and vulnerable species of birds found within European Union countries. They are European designated sites, classified under the ‘Birds Directive 1979’ which provides enhanced protection.

Coastal SPAs in the UK include Flamborough Head (Yorkshire), St Kilda (Scotland), Skomer (Wales) and Strangford Lough (Northern Ireland). Further information about SPAs can be found on the Natural England website.

The benefits of protecting our seas

Our seas are worth protecting for the amazing range of species and habitats they hold – over half the UK’s wildlife lives in the sea. Our seas are a key part of our living life support system – nature. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment states: “The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision-making.

Economic benefits our seas provide include supporting the natural processes we rely on, such as flood management, cleaning our water, storing carbon and regenerating urban areas. Management of marine conservation sites provides jobs, and the tourists they attract can boost local economies. Further benefits to people include recreational opportunities, with studies consistently showing access to nature improves health and wellbeing.

Campaign for Marine Conservation Zones in English seas

The Wildlife Trusts are running a campaign to secure a network of Marine Conservation Zones around England - these are sites designated at a national level and complement those places protected under European laws. Click the link below to sign up.