Blog post by Isobel Mercer, RSPB Senior Policy Officer

Last week, rather quietly and with no formal announcement, the Flamborough and Filey Coast Special Protection Area (SPA) was officially classified. The designation of this internationally important site for seabirds is an important step towards the delivery of the UK Government’s vision of clean, healthy and well managed seas and is welcomed by the RSPB.

The site is the most important mainland nesting site in the UK for many threatened seabird species such as kittiwakes, gannets, razorbills and guillemots. It also includes Bempton Cliffs - the UK’s largest mainland gannet colony and an RSPB reserve. The classification extends the existing SPA protection to more of the nesting areas and also includes a strip of sea adjacent to the cliffs, which is used by the birds for preening and resting.

Bempton gannets (c) Michael Harvey

This announcement comes a couple of months after the UK’s Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s welcome call for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. The challenge for the UK Government will be to ensure that the UK lives up to this global standard of ambition at home and not just abroad. With a fourth leasing round for offshore wind now imminent, internationally important sites like Flamborough must be properly protected. Full consideration of any impacts to the special species and habitats that they support must be given before further deployment of offshore wind.

The UK’s seabirds are in trouble, with many species in severe decline. This is caused by the combined effects of climate change, loss of breeding habitat, displacement from key feeding areas by windfarms and other developments at sea, and unsustainable fishing practices that impact species on which seabirds feed. Even at places like our Bempton Cliffs Reserve, which is one of the UK’s most important places for breeding seabirds, and a site where gannets are currently doing well, species like kittiwakes are struggling in the face of these pressures. 

Extended legal protection of this colony is an important step, but to tackle ongoing declines in seabird populations it is vital that the key foraging areas at sea used by internationally important breeding seabird colonies – including this colony - are also protected. Sadly, to date this is not the case.

Razorbill (c) Andy Hay

Exciting new seabird tracking research undertaken by the RSPB has helped to identify the most important areas at sea, or ‘hotspots’ for several seabird species. The tracking results showed that the seas off Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs are a major UK hotspot for kittiwakes, but human pressure on these foraging areas is already beginning to impact the kittiwake colony.

Designation is the first step. It is critical that Natural England now ensure that effective management measures for this site are in place and enforced. It is also crucial that Natural England quickly progress the designation of the underpinning Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), as parts of the extended SPA currently lack this essential layer of protection, leaving it vulnerable to inappropriate management.