TWO new protected marine sites larger than Edinburgh and Glasgow combined have been established in Orkney for the protection of vulnerable seabirds.

Scapa Flow and North Orkney, which collectively cover 529 square kilometres, have now been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to help preserve rare wild birds, including the great northern diver and Slavonian grebe.

Orkney, one of the UK’s major hotspots for breeding seabirds, sees around a million of these creatures flock to the islands during summer. However, breeding seabird numbers in Scotland have declined by 49% since the mid-1980s, and many of the country’s globally important marine bird populations face significant man-made threats.

Announcing the new sites during a visit to Orkney, Minister for Environment and Land Reform Mairi McAllan (below) said: “Scotland has some of the most beautiful, diverse and important marine ecosystems in the world and it is imperative that we protect and enhance them.

The National:

“Designations such as these ensure some of the most vulnerable seabird species and their habitats are afforded the protection they need not just for today but for future generations.

“Scotland’s marine environment is also crucial for supporting the sustainable recovery of our maritime industries and these designations will play a pivotal role in it.

“This marks the culmination of a great deal of work and I would like to thank everyone involved for their efforts, for the designations in Orkney, which largely completes Scotland’s SPA network.”

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The commitment to enhance marine environmental protection in Scotland was part of the Bute House Agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green parliamentary group.

Hailing the development, Scottish Green environmental spokesperson Mark Ruskell MSP told the National: “Scotland is in a nature emergency, which is why protecting and restoring nature is a central pillar of the Bute House Agreement which brought Greens into government.  

The National:

“Expanding and improving our Marine Protected Areas is a big part of that, which is why I am delighted this urgently needed protection for key seabird breeding areas has been brought forward. The work to get here has taken some time but I’m hopeful we can further expand and improve Marine Protected Areas in the future.”

The announcement was also welcomed by RSPB Scotland, which had previously called on the Scottish Government to add the Orkney sites to the twelve SPAs originally announced in 2020.

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RSPB Scotland’s Orkney Area Manager Sarah Sankey commented: “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.”