Europe and Central Asia
2 Dec 2016

Birds and Beyond – Special Protection Areas in the EU

Rabbit © Padraig Kavanagh
By Wouter Langhout & Iván Ramirez – BirdLife Europe and Central Asia

BirdLife’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) have long been recognised as the scientific baseline for identifying nature hotspots worthy of Special Protection Area (SPA) status under the EU’s iconic nature laws – the Birds Directive. New research conducted by a team of international scientists – led by the University of Helsinki and recently published in the journal ‘Biological Conservation’ – shows that while these networks were originally designed to protect birds, they also play a significant role in protecting many threatened species of reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

Protected areas are one of the great pillars of nature conservation. The theory is simple: by protecting land and waterways from the perils of human activity (from urban development to over-exploitation), their natural biodiversity has a chance to thrive. But, in practice, the perennial whys and wherefores of the official identification and designation processes inevitably make it a challenging task for the international governments and institutions involved.

For over 30 years, BirdLife has been developing and fine-tuning a set of simple yet robust criteria to scientifically identify Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). These sites have long received world-wide recognition as areas of international significance for the conservation of threatened and endangered bird species. Indeed, right here in Europe, IBAs are routinely used as the scientific baseline for selecting nature hotpots that merit Special Protection Area (SPA) status under the EU’s most iconic nature laws – the Birds Directive

That these areas are scientifically worthy of such singular recognition has once again been confirmed by new research – recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation – by an international team of scientists, led by the University of Helsinki. This research, supported by the science team at BirdLife, investigated the extent to which the habitats of birds, mammals and reptiles are actually covered by the Birds Directive. In doing so, the project studied how closely BirdLife’s IBAs informed the definition of the EU’s SPA network and how the network’s species coverage could be expanded exponentially. And the results are quite interesting indeed. 

For one, the researchers found that SPAs cover 66% of the EU’s IBAs, but the degree of overlap varies considerably between Member States. Those who have joined the EU more recently have done a particularly good job – Latvia, for example, has designated almost all of their IBAs as SPAs. Other Member States such as Malta, Belgium and Spain, however still lag behind with their networks.

The study also looked at the coverage of the habitats of mammals, reptiles and amphibians in the SPA network. On average, it covers around 31% of the habitat of threatened reptiles, 25% of the amphibians and 20% of the mammals. This is pretty impressive, especially given that the template for these networks – based on BirdLife’s IBAs – was mainly designed for birds. This shows that BirdLife’s IBA classification, and, in turn, the EU’s Birds Directive does, in fact, do far more than just protect birds – one small step for birds, is a giant leap for animal-kind more-broadly!

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Similarly, in terms of how best to expand the existing SPA network, the researchers found that a relatively modest expansion in some key countries (notably, Finland, Greece, and Spain) would mean a very significant increase in the network’s ability to protect an even higher percentage of species across the board.


The full paper can be viewed in full on

Wouter Langhout is EU Nature Policy Officer at BirdLife ECA

For further details on this paper please contact: Aija Kukkala (lead author) and Iván Ramírez (co-author and Head of Conservation at BirdLife ECA). 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.