Know your SACs from your SPAs: Explaining Natura 2000

by Patrick Barrett

The Natura 2000 sites encompass 18% of the EU’s land cover and 6% of its marine territory, making it the ‘largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world’[1]. Its sole purpose is the protection of our prized habitats and the animals who inhabit them. The animals and habitats they strive to protect are those most vulnerable, who, without protective interference would most likely become extinct. The sites are designated from areas where habitats and bird species, listed in the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive, are found.

Across the EU there are over 27,000 different sites that fall under the Natura 2000 network. Unlike nature reserves, national parks or other regional or nationally protected lands, these sites are all home to some of the 2000 species, and 230 habitat types, deemed to be most at risk and of European importance to protect. Within this, there are two types of protected areas Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs).

SACs protect a wide range of habitats (and in turn the flora and fauna they possess) like forests, agri-environments and our own boglands. SPAs help protect the bird species deemed most vulnerable across the EU. Here at Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park most of our parkland falls within the Owenduff/Nephin Complex SAC and SPA.

The Owenduff/Nephin Complex SAC and SPA is comprised of over 26,000 ha, and is located along the western seaboard in northwest Mayo. The Complex is dominated by the Nephin mountain range, to the east and south, and a large area of blanket bog to the west and north. Recognised as being one of the largest, if not the largest, remaining area of active blanket bogland left in western Europe it is little surprise that this area is home to an array of vulnerable plant and animal species.

Originally given SPA status in October 1996, the area was found to have four bird species listed on the Annex II under the Birds Directive (the link further explains the Annex listings)[2]. These are the Greenland White Fronted Geese, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and the Golden Plover. Other important flora and fauna species mentioned include the Red Grouse, Common Frog and the Irish Hare.

The Owenduff/Nephin Complex obtained its SAC at the same time as being awarded SPA status. The reasoning for being awarded this status was for the plethora of important habitat types that occur within the area, some of which are: Oligotrophic Waters containing very few minerals, Dystrophic Lakes, Floating River Vegetation, Wet Heath, Blanket Bogs (Active) and Alpine and Subalpine Heaths. Within these habitat types you can also find some important plant and animal species like the Atlantic Salmon, Otter, Slender Green Feather-moss and the Marsh Saxifrage.

For some flora and fauna these sanctuaries may be the last chance they have to survive, and for some it may still not be enough. At a time when human activity is at is most destructive towards our environment the importance of the EU’s Natura 2000 sites will, more than likely, become even more prevalent with time.

The Natura 2000 Viewer is an online map that allows you to view all SAC and SPA designated sites across the EU. It also provides information on the reasoning behind a particular site gaining its status.


[1] “Natura 2000 – European Commission.” 4 Jul. 2018, Accessed 28 Sep. 2018.

[2] “Natura 2000 Standard Data Form.” Accessed 28 Sep. 2018.