OEP Launches Investigations into Special Protection Areas for Wild Birds

The OEP is investigating the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Secretary of State (SoS) and Natural England over possible failures to comply with environmental law in relation to Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for wild birds, it announced today (March 18, 2024).    

The investigation will seek to determine whether Defra SoS and Natural England have failed to comply with environmental law relating to SPAs on land. This includes possible failures to implement recommendations given by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and other conservation public bodies on the classification and adaptation of SPAs and in respect of their general duties to protect and maintain wild bird populations. 

SPAs are legally designated sites that protect rare and threatened wild birds, such as curlew, bittern and common tern found in England. SPAs are internationally important areas for breeding, overwintering, and migrating birds. They have also been shown to deliver positive outcomes for wider biodiversity.  

Wild bird populations continue to decline across England, with 70 species now on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List1 – a number that has almost doubled in 25 years. The Severn Estuary, the North Pennine Moors, and The Wash are some examples of England’s SPAs, with the latter regularly supporting over 400,000 waterbirds over the winter.   

The JNCC and other conservation public bodies have carried out reviews of SPAs that focus on land and coastal sites, in doing so, they then made recommendations to Defra on the creation of new SPAs and adaptation of existing SPAs in order to protect and maintain certain wild bird populations. 

As part of its wider work the OEP will also seek to understand the progress of SPA reviews in the marine environment. 

The OEP will also be investigating the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland over possible failures to comply with Northern Ireland environmental law in relation to SPAs. At the same time, Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) has also launched an investigation today (18 March, 2024) into similar issues in Scotland, with the Interim Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales (IEPAW) undertaking work that includes SPAs, with shared concerns over them - marking the first time this coordinated action has taken place.  

Natalie Prosser, OEP Chief Executive Officer (CEO), said: “It is significant that today (18 March, 2024) marks the beginning of three investigations in three different countries, on the same important environmental issue.  The ESS’ investigation, our own investigations in England and Northern Ireland, along with the concerns of IEPAW, demonstrates this is a UK-wide issue that requires attention.  

SPAs play a key role nationally and internationally in protecting populations of wild birds that are currently in regrettable decline. 

“They are important for achieving government’s commitments in relation to nature, such as the goal of thriving plants and wildlife in the Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) and the legally binding targets to first halt and then reverse the decline of species abundance. This is in addition to the UK Government’s international commitment to protect at least 30% of land and ocean for nature’s recovery by 2030. 

“Our investigation will seek to establish whether the recommendations of previous SPA reviews, such as one that was published in 2001, have been fully implemented and if not, the reasons why. The background to our investigation is that recommendations from another review carried out between 2015 and 2017 have yet to be published. Another step in that review, which may include classifications of new SPAs and the adaptation of existing SPAs, has yet to begin.” 

The CEO added: “We do not know yet what our investigations will find. However, the implementation of reviews like these are important so SPAs can work to protect and maintain wild bird populations the way they are supposed to.” 

If an investigation finds a failure to comply with environmental law the OEP will aim to resolve any non-compliance through co-operation, dialogue and agreement with public departments and authorities. 

However, where a satisfactory outcome cannot be reached through these means, the OEP can use its other enforcement powers including, if necessary, commencing court proceedings. 

1 This means that they have suffered severe declines and or are threatened with extinction. 

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