THE Firth of Forth, home to one home to some of Scotland's most high-profile industrial sites, was yesterday declared a Special Protection Area.

It is the highest EC protection designation and coincides with the first visit to Scotland of Margot Wallstrom, the EC environment commissioner.

Up to 200,000 seabirds nest in the extensive network of habitats bordering the firth, including the 100,000-plus gannets on the Bass Rock, once described by David Attenborough as ''a wildlife wonder of the world''.

The rarities which visit in some numbers include Slavonian and great crested grebe, red and black-throated diver, bar-tailed godwit, sandwich tern, scaup, grey plover, and velvet scoter.

Although most of the firth is already covered by a patchwork of sites of special scientific interest, the SPA designation is a clear sign that industry will have to adapt and that planning regimes will be required to reflect the international status of the firth.

However, whether the desig-nation, and the four others announced yesterday, will bring any real benefits to those who live and work inside its boundaries is highly unlikely.

There have been rumblings recently among conservationists that the Scottish Executive is paying lip service to the EU directives by failing to put sufficient funds into environment schemes to underpin the designations by positively enhancing the habitat.

One minister has been noted as saying the executive does not intend to ''gold plate'' SPAs, a euphemism for implementing the letter of the EU law only.

Those people within the new wave of SPAs are now regarded as receiving the bits of the directives that the executive cannot get away without doing, while the broader EU vision of people positively encouraged to work in harmony with the natural heritage in special places is lost.

That message is likely to come across forcibly to Commissioner Wallstrom from the non-governmental organisations in the next two days.

Rhona Brankin, the deputy minister for environment, said yesterday: ''Scotland's wildlife and birdlife is usually associated with the Highlands and Islands and other rural areas. But today we are classifying the UK's fourth-busiest estuary as an SPA, guaranteeing the future of the area's astonishing array of wildlife.

''It is a measure of the unique natural heritage of this country that species such as bar-tailed godwit, golden plover, redshank - as well as rarer birds such as red-throated diver and Slavonian grebe - can thrive alongside cities and industries. This announcement ensures the Firth of Forth will remain one of the country's most important areas for birdlife for generations.''

Lloyd Austin, head of policy operations for the RSPB, said: ''The designation shows that birds, industry, cities and recreation can all co-exist. Over the years, however, the Forth has been subjected to much land claim, pollution, and mismanagement. To ensure the future of this site, local authorities, industry and conservationists must work together to plan the Forth's management.''

Ms Brankin also announced SPA designation for North Rona and Sula Sgeir, islands and skerries 40 miles off the north coast of Lewis which host dense colonies of gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and puffins.

The SPA classification will not affect the traditional harvesting of young gannets - locally known as ''gugas'' - which are eaten in some parts of Lewis as a delicacy. There is a law which allows a limited number of the birds to be taken.

The minister also designated a site in south-west Scotland where black-throated divers nest, but the location is being kept secret to guard against egg collectors who are now expected to target Scotland because of the failure of the executive to legislate for jail sentences in line with England.

A further site, Burrow Head in south-west Galloway, is to be proposed to the EC as a candidate for Special Area of Conservation to protect an important great crested newt habitat.