SAC, SPA, SSSI, and more: the acronyms’ stories


Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.” [6]

The Upper Solway at low tide (thanks to pilot Andrew Lysser)

Their borders aren’t marked by posts or buoys, but they are marked by lines on maps, and by co-ordinates and words in documents.

Dunlin at Allonby Bay

Native and migrant wading birds don’t know about the borders, but they know that this great seascape of changing tides and rich mudflats and saltmarshes is where they want and need to be. Burrowing crustacea, worms and bivalve molluscs, samphire, sea-kale and pink thrift, the millions of microscopic animals and plants and algae that make up the densely-interwoven life of the Solway Firth – their lives depend on the intricacy and uniqueness of their three-dimensional surroundings.

This is why the Upper Solway is protected from human exploitation and ‘re-arrangement’ by layers of statutory – that is, legally-enforceable – conservation designations. You can investigate their virtual boundaries yourself on the excellent interactive maps on MagicMap [1]. I have included screen-shots here for simplicity (having enquired of MagicMap whether I might do so), but you can 'layer' these if you use their website.

‘Designations’, ‘directives’, ‘habitat’, and hosts of unmemorable acronyms [2, 3]: I’m well aware that these are a turn-off for those of us who aren’t professionally involved in looking after our country’s wildlife, but there is a way of appreciating them, which I’ll return to later.

‘Safe areas’ along the Solway

First, though, let’s look at our Solway Firth, the sea and the estuaries and the many varieties of coastal ‘edge-lands’ that form this large crooked finger of water that reaches deep into the borderlands between Scotland and England.

The large, and main, protected area of the Solway Firth is the Upper Solway Flats and Marshes, which unites the two countries around the coasts and across the water.

Ramsar sites in green (from MagicMap; with my thanks)

This is a Ramsar site – designated as important wetlands under The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental, ie international, treaty which ‘provides the framework for national action and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.’

SACs and SPAs in purple (from MagicMap; with my thanks)

Exactly the same area is designated under EU legislation as a European Marine Site (EMS). This is quite complicated and I quote from the Solway Firth Partnership’s website [3]: “A Special Protection Area (SPA) is a site designated under the Birds Directive. These sites, together with Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), are called 'Natura' sites and they are internationally important for threatened habitats and species. Natura sites form a unique network of protected areas which stretch across Europe [my italics]. The inner Solway Firth ... is designated as an SAC and SPA and is collectively known as the Solway Firth European Marine Site. The [separate] Solway Firth SAC designation reflects the importance of the site’s marine and coastal habitats including merse (saltmarsh), mudflats and reefs. The Upper Solway Flats and Marshes SPA designation recognises the large bird populations that these habitats support, particularly in winter.”

It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under UK statutory protection (overseen by Natural England & Scottish Natural Heritage, respectively. So it’s not trivial.

Proposed SPA (Scottish Natural Heritage/ Natural England consultation)

And note that a proposal to extend the SPA is currently (November 2016) under consideration; for more details, a map, and how to respond, see the 'news' section of the Solway Firth Partnership’s website.

Although not strictly within the Firth, there are other international Ramsar sites along the adjacent coasts: the inner part of Luce Bay, and the Duddon and Morecambe Estuaries (again, on the basis of being internationally important wetland areas). They – and the coast at Drigg near Sellafield - are also Special Areas of Conservation, SACs, under EU statutes.

(The Solway’s importance for birds – so many species, both residents and migrants, and in such numbers – is also recognised by the UK charities the Wildlife & Wetlands Trust with their big wetland and coastal reserve at Caerlaverock, and by the RSPB’s coastal and wetland reserves at Campfield and St Bees’ Head.)

MCZs, existing and proposed (from MagicMap: with my thanks)

Over the past few years, DEFRA has been designating parts of the English and Irish seas and coast as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). The ‘Cumbrian Coast MCZ’ stretches along the shore from St Bees’ Head to Ravenglass, and ‘Allonby Bay MCZ’ pushes out into the Solway, recognised especially for its important honeycomb-worm (Sabellaria) reefs. Three deep-sea muddy areas in the Irish Sea, with their own special animals, have also been put forward for consideration by DEFRA in the next round; one of these is Mud-Hole near to the Cumbrian coast, home to ‘Dublin Bay prawns’ (aka scampi, Norway lobsters, Nephrops). The 'Solway Firth' recommended MCZ  has been re-entered into this tranche for consideration, as a site of importance for smelt.

MCZs are designated under the UK’s Marine & Coastal Access Act, which in turn was set up in response to the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Parcels of protection

The sea, estuaries, mudflats and saltmarshes of the Solway Firth have been parcelled, here and there, into places of protection for what economists would call our ‘natural capital’ – as though it is something to be used or exchanged – but for what in reality are the vast numbers and species of other residents of our own land- and sea-scape.

The Solway’s estuaries and coasts are not solely a product of the sea and the mouths of the many rivers that flow into the Firth – they are also influenced strongly, both in geological time and the short-term, by what happens inland.

If we move inshore, a little deeper into the edgelands, we find dunes, then peaty raised mires (the ‘Mosses’) (4) and areas of carr and wetland where water is retained. Many of these places are special, too – for their appearance and ‘feel’, the colours, the smells, and the very different plants and animals and fungi that live there.

Drumburgh Moss, seen from the air.

And luckily for us – and them – many are under statutory protection.

Most of the UK’s remaining raised mires are around the Solway’s upper end, and the South Solway Mosses – Wedholme Flow, Glasson Moss, Bowness Common and Drumburgh Moss – on the English side, are Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) protected by European legislation. So too is Kirkconnell Flow near Dumfries.

Then there are the National Nature Reserves (NNR), protected by UK legislation: on the English side, the South Solway Mosses, Drumburgh Moss, Walton Moss and Thornhill Moss; on the Scottish side Caerlaverock and Kirkconnell Flow .

AONB (in red) and NNRs (yellow dots) (my thanks to MagicMap)

We have the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), 50 km of coastline stretching from Maryport along the dunes and saltmarshes to Rockcliffe, managed in statutory compliance [5] with the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 (CroW) and overseen by the three local councils, and Natural England; the AONB incorporates SSSIs too.

SSSIs in the northern part of the Firth (my thanks to MagicMap)

And there are many SSSIs, both sides of the Firth, along the coast and inshore; they too are under UK statutory protection through the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and CRoW, and managed by Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. Amongst them, I’ve already mentioned the Upper Solway Flats & Marches – but there are also, for example, the SSSIs of the South Solway Mosses, Finglandrigg Wood, Silloth Dunes and Mawbray Banks, Maryport Harbour, St Bees’ Head, Drigg Coast ... and on the Scottish side, Kirkconnell Flow, Auchencairn and Orchardtown Bays, Abbeyhead Coast, Brighouse Bay, Wigtown Sands and the Whithorn Coast...

SSSIs in the southern part of the Firth (my thanks to MagicMap)

I haven’t yet mentioned the many GeoConservation Sites (formerly known as RIGS), such as exposures of the submerged forest near Beckfoot, and Marshall’s red sandstone quarry above St Bees’; although some of these are SSSIs and therefore under statutory protection, many are not. And I’m not going to consider the few Local Nature Reserves such as Siddick Pond.

‘Too much information?’

I’ve gathered together this information in order firstly:

- to understand how, and to what degree, the Solway Firth and its edgelands are protected from human intervention, whether from carelessness or from major construction projects;

and secondly, to dispel my own despair over lists of acronyms by considering what these ‘designated areas’ mean in real-life terms.

So, let us “Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.”

Let's return again to Richard Fortey [6], persuading us to think beyond the check-list of ‘species found’: to pause, and take time to examine the life-habits of those species.

His suggestion could equally apply to the list of designated conservation areas along the Solway. SAC? Tick. SPA? Tick. SSSI? Tick, tick, tick ...


Bowness at dawn

Imagine, then, making a short trip around the Cumbrian coast from Bowness-on-Solway to Anthorn, preferably when the tide is mid-way up and rising; leisurely cycling (tight lycra with logos not required) is a good way of getting about – it’s slow, and you can abandon the bike to explore on foot.

Here at Bowness the Firth, stretching between Scotland and England, shore to shore between Mean High Water Level, is the Ramsar site, and an SAC, SPA, MPA and SSSI. Mudflats and pebbly banks have been exposed. There are tiny holes in the mud, hinting at the burrows of crustacea like Corophium and of snails like Potamopyrgus; coils of muddy sand on the surface betray the U-tubes of lugworms. They, and several species of burrowing molluscs, use the mud as protection from predators like fish and crabs, but many species of the wading birds busy on the shore are specialist probers intent on finding them. Other snails, and worms like ragworms, lurk beneath small rocks and pebbles, but oyster-catchers and gulls know where to look. As the tide floods in, redshank scurry along the water’s edge; flocks of dunlin flash binary signals of black and white as they wheel and turn, and curlews pace and probe.

These mudflats are home to hundreds of invertebrate species, millions of animals that are adapted to live and feed and breed in a place where the sea covers and exposes them twice a day, and where brackish conditions can change from one day to another, depending on the state of the rivers. They are tough and adaptable animals – within limits – and their numbers and life-styles make the Upper Solway mud a rich feeding-ground for resident and migrant wading birds to re-stock their energy levels.

Remains of viaduct at Bowness

To the South-West of Bowness, trees and scrub hide the landward end of a stub of red sandstone, all that remains of the former railway viaduct that crossed the Firth. (Note that one of the three current proposals for generating power from the Solway’s tides is for an ‘energy bridge’ to be built from here across to Annan, along the line of the former viaduct.)

Imagine the Upper Solway during the construction of that viaduct, throughout the five years between 1864-69: barges, pile-drivers, the movement of hundreds of tons of sandstone and iron (and sea-borne sediment), the day-after-day clatter and shouting and banging; the fishing and wild-fowling needed to supplement the meals of all those workers; the disruption and disturbance in the Firth and surrounding countryside. Did they worry about ‘the environment’? ‘Conservation’ and ‘biodiversity’ were not part of the everyday vocabulary.

Re-wetted line of the railway, Bowness Common

Here the story of the Upper Solway Flats interacts with the story of the Solway Mosses SAC: the railway viaduct, of course, required a railway – which was driven across the raised mire of Bowness Common from Whitrigg.
Bowness Common is part of the South Solway Mosses SAC (and is also an SSSI and NNR); part of it is also owned and managed by the RSPB as its Campfield Reserve. You cannot easily access the railway from the Bowness end and even if you could, you would now need to wear waders at the very least! The line for the railway was excavated through the peat, which was in places nearly 50 feet (15m) deep. This was (eventually – for a while there were some problems with subsidence) good for the railway, but harmful for the complex hydrological structure of the mire. Now, we recognise that peat-bogs and raised mires are very important carbon-stores, and the emphasis is on restoring the mires so that water-retaining sphagnum mosses can re-establish. Natural England and the RSPB have, over recent years, done considerable work in re-wetting the Moss of Bowness Common, including turning parts of the old railway track into ponds and wetland.

Bowness Common, sphagnum spp. and Erica

So, turn into Campfield Reserve, have a cup of coffee in the Solway Wetlands Centre, then walk up the track to the hides that variously overlook grazed pastures, wetlands and lakes. Birds of the hedgerows, of woodland, waterbirds and raptors, and waders from the Solway shore, all take advantage of the variety. Carry on past the wood and out onto Bowness Common, onto a glorious wide-open space dominated by heather, mosses, sundew and butterwort, and all manner of other bogplants; here be dragonflies – and butterflies, water-beetles and pondskaters, frogs and newts and lizards ...

Barnacle geese at Caerlaverock

In the autumn and winter, the story of this RSPB Reserve – and WWT’s Caerlaverock too – turns a page to a new chapter, about the influx of thousands of overwintering barnacle and pinkfooted geese, and whooper swans. They come here, visitors from far-off Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard, to graze on the Upper Solway wetlands and on the other ‘designated’ areas of the Firth – the salt-marshes.

From the viaduct, saltmarshes stretch South along the coast to Anthorn near Whitrigg, their turf jigsaw-ed by muddy creeks. They too are part of the Ramsar, SSSI and AONB stories, and home to mud-loving and saline-tolerant plants and animals. Small samphire plants appear to be caught in freeze-frame as they stride out across the mud, and pink thrift carpets the close-cropped turf between the feet of grazing sheep and cattle. The story of the saltmarshes is never constant, for the marshes are always shape-changing, sequestering or releasing the sediment carried by the tide; they are the intermediary narrators between the land and sea.

Bowness Common, saltmarsh edgelands, and Moricambe Bay mudflats

Saltmarsh at Campfield RSPB Reserve

Designations, legislations

But what if the story-book gets torn, or if a group of people decide the books are merely clutter and should be thrown out?
If you carry out dredging operations on Ramsar mudflats, place gas-gun bird-scarers on an SAC, drag a trawl across the bottom of an MCZ, or set fire to the heather on a SSSI – who has the power to stop you? Will you get a ‘talking-to’ or be taken to court? And if you are to be prosecuted, under which laws, and in which court and where – a local magistrate’s court, a Crown court, or the European Court of Justice? Post-Brexit, will we have a UK Environmental Court? (In answer to the latter question (Q329) at the Environmental Audit Select Committee, Andrea Leadsom of DEFRA stated we will not. But Ministers’ statements are rarely set in stone.)

The answers to any questions regarding legislation are, as you might expect, very complicated (and might lead you on to further questions such as ‘So, who does own the foreshore of the SAC?’ – and the answer to that depends on which foreshore ...).

It also depends whether the damage is done by you, as an individual and therefore ‘third party’ (when you might be answerable to, for example, Natural England [7] and petty crimes might be prosecuted in local courts), or whether the damage occurs because one of the statutory organisations – such as the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage – have failed to fully protect or manage a designated site. More serious infringements could well require lawyers expensively well-versed in international environmental law.

Sheep on the saltmarsh at high tide

After looking into this, and asking questions of my friends and contacts in the relevant organisations, I realised this section could stretch to several pages. So, happily, I can point you to the Marine section of the excellent website , ‘Law & the environment, a plain guide to environmental law’. Also, there is a government website solely concerned with legislation. For example, from the page on Marine Strategy regulations you can, if you wish, click on Section 2, Enactments, and can keep following and clicking (here, for example, is how the MMO has power to bring legal proceedings). And so on, and on, until you forget which question you wanted answered, and only wish to watch videos of ‘dogs doing silly things’ on YouTube.

Instead, it’s often worthwhile to pause and to imagine what those acronyms stand for in the real world of the Solway Firth and its edgelands – and feel positive about the future.


My sincere thanks to Dr Emily Baxter (Senior Marine Conservation Officer, NorthWest Wildlife Trusts), Dr Brian Irving (Solway Coast AONB) and Clair McFarlane (Partnership Manager, Solway Firth Partnership) for their help in pulling together this information. Any mistakes are mine.

A shorter version of this article is also on my Solway Shore-walker blog

1. MagicMap

2. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) directory of designations for protected areas

3. Natural England’s National Character Assessment NCA no. 6 The Solway Basin for Landscape & Nature Conservation Designations (on the English side only)

Solway Firth Partnership’s website explains and illustrates some of the Scottish & English designations

4. Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) detailed explanations about characteristics and statutory provisions for raised mires in general

and for the South Solway Mosses

5. The legal framework for AONBs

6. Richard Fortey. (2016) The Wood for the Trees: the long view of nature from a small wood. Collins.

7. Enforcement by Natural England of SSSI policy



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