Environment watchdogs have launched a probe into whether the Scottish Government is doing enough to protect the habitats of Scotland’s rare, threatened and vulnerable birds. 

Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) will carry out an investigation to assess if there has been a failure to comply with legal duties regarding the classification of the Special Protection Area (SPA) network in Scotland. 

SPAs are areas that are chosen to protect rare or vulnerable bird species. There are currently 162 SPAs in Scotland which protect the homes of a wide range of species including the Golden Eagle and Red Kite. 

SPAs can be found from from the north of Shetland to the cross border Solway Firth SPA, with the smallest found at Imperial Dock Lock in the heart of Leith, in Edinburgh.

This site only covers around 1000 square metres, yet it is classified for and home to one of the UK’s biggest common tern colonies.

The Herald: An Arctic Tern An Arctic Tern (Image: NQ)

More than ten SPAs cover inshore and offshore waters, extending protecting to species including basking shark, minke whale and Risso’s dolphin. as well as 31 species of marine birds such as great northern diver, Slavonian grebe, long-tailed duck, Arctic tern and kittiwake 

The investigation by ESS will examine the governance of recommendations made by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in respect of the classification of SPAs in Scotland.  

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The JNCC is responsible for advising Scottish Ministers (and the UK Government and other devolved administrations) on aspects of the classification and management of SPAs, publishing SPA Selection Guidelines and providing advice to nature conservation bodies, including NatureScot, in connection with their functions. 

The investigation follows concerns raised with ESS that environmental law regarding SPAs is not being fully implemented across the UK.  

Today the Office for Environmental Protection has launched a separate investigation into the SPA network in England and Northern Ireland.  

The Interim Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales (IEPAW) are also undertaking work that includes SPAs, with shared concerns over them. 

The Herald: A Golden Eagle in the CairngormsA Golden Eagle in the Cairngorms (Image: NQ)

Mark Roberts, CEO of ESS, said: “Scotland has over 160 special protection areas (SPAs) spanning the length of the country, from the North of Shetland to the Solway Firth. These areas are fundamental to the safeguarding of our protected bird species, their nests, eggs and habitats. 

“We’re announcing an investigation into the classification and governance of the SPA network following receipt of a representation that has raised concerns regarding the classification and adaptation of these SPAs in Scotland. 

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“Last year the Scottish Government declared a biodiversity crisis. Ensuring that the law that protects nature is fully and effectively implemented is an essential part of addressing that crisis. 

"We will publish the results of our investigation in due course.” 

A spokesman added: “The SPA governance and classification landscape is complex. ESS’ investigation will seek to determine where responsibilities sit and if there are governance gaps within the current framework.

"Any updates on the investigation will be announced on the ESS website and the individuals or organisations informed.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We take biodiversity and conservation very seriously and are committed to ensuring the highest standards in Scotland. We look forward to participating fully in the Environmental Standards Scotland investigation.

“NatureScot, the body that advises Ministers on matters relating to the designation of protected areas in Scotland, and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) work closely together on these matters, and we understand that discussions between the home nations and the JNCC are ongoing and hope these will be resolved soon.”