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Training package on EU Nature Protection Legislation – Focus on Site Protection

Module 2: Focus on Site Protection Legal Regime

Site Designation and Establishment of Conservation Measures: Birds Directive - Selection and Designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs)

The protection for endangered as well as migratory species is ensured by establishing a coherent network of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) (Article 4 (1) and (2), in connection with Annex I of the Birds Directive), which are selected and legally classified by the Member States. (More information: C-57/89; C-334/89; C-355/90; C-166/97; C-96/98.) The selected sites must include the habitats needed by the particular species when mating, breeding and feeding and for migratory species also for moulting, roosting and over-wintering. The Member States have a margin of discretion when identifying the most suitable sites. This principle was confirmed by the CJEU in the Leybucht case. However, they have to apply scientific and ornithological criteria and not economic or social considerations. (More information: C-355/90; C-44/95.) The Member States must fully apply those criteria in a way that ensures that all the ‘most suitable territories’, both in number and surface area, are designated.

If a Member States fails to designate a most suitable territory as an SPA, the Court can decide that the concerned area should have been classified as such, as it held, inter alia, in the Marismas de Santona case. (More information: C-355/90; C-166/97; C-96/98.) After designating potential SPAs, the Member States provide information about the site to the Commission, which determines whether the designated sites are sufficient to form a coherent network for the protection of vulnerable and migratory species. Member States transmit the information necessary to the Commission by way of Standard Data Forms. (More information:

Due to the fact that the Birds Directive itself does not provide explicit selection criteria for SPAs, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as BirdLife International, with the support of the Commission and Member States, publish reference lists of Important Bird Areas with specified selection criteria to provide assistance to the Member States in designating such areas. (More information: C-3/96; C-235/04.) Since 1994, all SPAs have formed an integral part of Natura 2000, comprising all the most suitable territories for the most endangered and migratory species.

Image: Birds Directive - Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
Source:, p. 30


Developed by the Academy of European Law (ERA)