It’s almost invariably good news when a special site for wildlife gets legal recognition and is designated.

But the Greater Wash Special Protection Area (SPA) – which was classified as an SPA by DEFRA ministers on 28 March begs some questions. The site is important for red-throated divers, common scoters and little gulls in winter and feeding terns.

The Saving Special Places blog asked our Head of Site Conservation Policy, Kate Jennings, to delve beneath the surface.

SSP blog – Surely designating a new – and large SPA is a red letter day worth celebrating?

Kate – Yes it is, and the Greater Wash SPA is a very large site (you can see the map here) - and it's vital to internationally important bird populations. But in this case there are worrying differences between the proposed site and the one finally agreed after a consultation – basically it now has a hole in the middle!

 SSP blog – So what has happened to change the site’s boundaries during the consultation?

Kate – Good question! During the consultation there were a number of objections from the offshore wind industry (there are a number of windfarms inside the site) questioning the evidence used to come up with the proposed site and support designation.  The main issues focused on the age of the data (2002/3 – 2007-8) so 10 years old for some species (reflecting just how long the UK Government has taken to progress designation here) and the existence of more recent survey data collected from the air after the construction of the windfarms which shows that bird distributions have changed and densities have fallen within the windfarm areas. Crucially, the available data from surveys before the windfarms were built show that these were amongst the most important parts of this site for these birds, according to the evidence that underpinned the designation proposals.   

This more recent data was not taken into account in the case for designation.  Natural England (NE) have access to this more recent data as that’s a condition of construction – but, crucially, it is not in the public domain. Industry argued that on this basis the windfarm areas should be excluded from the site boundaries.

SSP blog – but isn’t it reasonable to use the latest information?

Kate - Decisions about the boundaries of SPAs must – by law – be based only on scientific considerations which is vital to ensure that protection is given to the best areas for wildlife and not just the bits that nobody else cares about – anything less would constitute significant weakening of legal protection. It is normal practice is to limit the evidence used to backup site designation to that which is in the public domain (or which is made public as part of the consultation),as it is right that consultees are able to scrutinise that data.  

So, an informal consultation prior to the formal stage asks stakeholders to get in touch to share any information relevant to the proposals.  This is intended to flush out any such information at this stage. This happened in this case. This puts NE and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), as advisers to DEFRA in a strong position when objectors later wheel out evidence they have not been prepared to share.

SSP blog – So, to be clear, it appears the boundaries of the SPA have modified on the basis of data provided that is not publicly available?

Kate – Yes, as we understand it at a meeting between the responsible minister, DEFRA officials, NE and industry representatives a decision was taken to exclude the windfarms in the middle of the SPA. As the data is not publically available that, currently, is all we know.

SSP blog – To be clear, it would appear that three windfarms are now, in effect surrounded by the SPA – how will the seabirds know to avoid the hole in the middle?

Kate – They won't! The protection an SPA gives follows the features (in other words the birds themselves) rather than the boundaries. So, at one level, it could be argued that the fact there is a hole in our SPA will make little or no practical difference to the regulation of activities within the windfarms (provided the law is applied correctly).

SSP blog – if the SPA can be effective – what are our fundamental concerns?

Kate – We have a site where the boundary has been changed by a Minister based on evidence not in the public domain, seemingly based on NE and JNCC advice that contradicts the original written advice that they and JNCC gave to Government. Without sight of the evidence the risk is always that economic pressures have swayed what should be a purely scientific consideration. 

Clearly there is a growing issue with the age of some data – pointing to the very real need for new and detailed offshore surveys ahead of new offshore leasing rounds.

In addition, if the data provided by the industry genuinely highlights the impact of the windfarms in the hole in the SPA – that is critical evidence that must be published so that we can all learn from the post-construction monitoring that so far has been kept confidential.

SPP blog – so what happens next?

Kate – We believe DEFRA, NE, JNCC and the offshore wind industry have serious questions to answer, not least in order to build trust and confidence that decisions around the rapidly expanding plans for offshore wind in the North Sea fully respect its importance for seabirds and marine wildlife.

We’ll return to this knotty issue when we have greater clarity