Important Orkney waters finally granted protection

Kirsty Nutt

Wednesday 16 February 2022

Common eider Somateria mollissima, emerging from water, Northumberland

Other areas of Scotland’s seas were granted protection in 2020, but two areas in Orkney were left out, despite their importance, until today.

RSPB Scotland has praised the Scottish Government for today’s announcement of two marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in Orkney stating that protections like these are needed now more than ever as we face a nature and climate emergency. 

The announcement means that any future developments and activities in the areas, named North Orkney and Scapa Flow, will need to take account of potential impacts so as not to harm the critical feeding and wintering grounds of grebes, divers and other marine birds.  

Orkney is one of the UK’s biggest hotspots for breeding seabirds. In the summer, around a million seabirds flock to the islands and they are an important home to populations of red-throated divers. In the winter, its seas are home to internationally important populations of wintering birds including eiders, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, red-throated and great northern divers, European shags and Slavonian grebes.    
Orkney’s wildlife is renowned for drawing in tourists from across the globe and is important to residents. The latest figures from the Orkney Islands Visitor Survey in 2019-20 show that the islands receive around 200,000 visits per year and those visitors contribute £67 million to the Orkney economy. Around 60% of visitors chose Orkney’s nature as their key reason to visit. 

Sarah Sankey, Orkney Area Manager at RSPB Scotland said: “The importance of Orkney for seabirds and wintering divers, seaducks and grebes is indisputable not only for their conservation but also for the economy of the islands with the spectacle of breeding and wintering seabirds drawing tourists to Orkney to view wildlife. It is therefore great news that these crucial sites are finally getting the protection they need and deserve. This announcement will not prevent development or activities in these areas but ensure that they don’t harm critical feeding areas of iconic wildlife. They should ensure that, in the future, any development and ongoing activities work together in a sustainable way for the benefit of wildlife and Orkney.”  

Scotland is home to some of Europe’s most important seabird populations yet breeding seabird numbers have declined by 49% since the mid-1980s and many of Scotland’s globally important marine bird populations face a cocktail of man-made threats on land and at sea.   

The Scottish Government is required by law to select the most important places for birds on land and at sea for special protection. The announcement of twelve SPAs in 2020, including the seas around the remote islands of St Kilda and Foula, was the first time in Scotland that areas at sea known to be important for birds searching for food received this type of protection.  

It gave RSPB Scotland, and many others, hope for some of the places in Scotland’s seas that hundreds of thousands of birds rely on for food and shelter.   

However, two of the fourteen proposed areas were missing from the Scottish Government’s statement – the marine areas of Scapa Flow, and the waters north of Orkney Mainland – despite meeting the criteria for selection as hotspots for wintering seaducks, divers and grebes. Scapa Flow is likely to be the most important area for these types of birds in the UK.    

RSPB Scotland called on the government to urgently progress the missing Orkney sites and to commit to resource and implement effective management plans for the new protected areas.   

Helen McLachlan, Head of Marine Policy for RSPB Scotland, said: “It has been a long process, but we are extremely pleased that it has reached the right conclusion. Effective protections for critical foraging and wintering areas are absolutely vital to help protect our marine birds, as many of them face an uncertain future due to the impact of climate change, unsustainable fishing, disturbance and pollution.” 

Our seas are increasingly being used to deliver a myriad of services including the production of renewable energy and the management of sustainable fisheries. Now more than ever, it is essential that we create safe havens and take measures that will help our marine birds recover and become more resilient in the face of change. Nature can and must thrive alongside climate-friendly infrastructure.” 

Last Updated: Wednesday 16 February 2022

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Topic: Orkney Topic: SPA