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In a biological conservation context, protected areas can be divided into 3 categories:

  • Special Protected Areas
  • Special Areas of Conservation
  • Marine Protected Areas

Although the names appear similar there are certain differences that set these categories apart. These differences consist mainly of what is protected in each category and what legislative body has defined them as such.

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)

SACs cover the protection of several species within the area and are defined by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) under the EU Habitats Directive (European Commission, 1997). These areas are defined as “important on a European as well as Irish level” by NPWS. Each SAC has a specific management plan identifying features of conservation interest. These features include both marine life and geographical structures. Within South-West Cork, 12 different SACs have been defined as of April 2016:


12 SACs within South-West Cork (WWW1)

Taking Roaringwater Bay as an example, there are three Annex II species protected here: the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), and the otter (Lutra lutra). Seabird species such as Fulmars, Shags and Guillemots are also under legislative protection in these areas, as well as smaller organisms like feather stars (Antedon bifila), bivalve species, and polychaete worms. The geographical features of interest in Roaringwater Bay have been listed as: large, shallow, inlets and bays, subtidal reefs, vegetated sea cliffs, dry heaths, and sea caves.


Special Areas of Conservation in West Cork (WWW2)

Special Protected Area (SPA)

SPAs apply to the birdlife of Ireland. Mainly based around marine islands and cliffs, these areas provide nesting sites for the 500,000+ individual seabirds from 24 species. Almost 600,000 hectares of Ireland have been designated as SPAs by the NPWS under the Birds Directive (EC, 2009). The coastal areas include productive intertidal zones of bays and estuaries that provide vital food resources for several wintering wader species including Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica).


Dunlin (Calidris alpina) (WWW3)

Marine waters close to the breeding colonies and other important areas for sea ducks, divers and grebes are also included with SPAs. The majority of the wintering and breeding seabirds and are considered to be regularly occurring migrants. Over 60% of 25 Annex I species that are found in Ireland regularly belong to these two groups. This has been a major factor of the situation that more than 80% of Ireland’s SPAs are designated for these two bird groups. Of the 154 SPAs around Ireland, three coastal areas of South-West Cork have been designated as Special Protected Areas: Clonakilty Bay, Gallyhead to Duneen Point, and Sheep’s Head to Toe Head.



Marine Protected Areas/ Marine Reserves (MPA)

Like the name suggests, these areas are specifically marine and function exactly like SACs. Currently, Ireland’s only statutory marine reserve is found at Lough Hyne. Established in 1981, this highly biodiverse sea lough can be found roughly 6km south of Skibbereen. It is unusual in that it has a relatively high number of species for such a small area, at just over 400ha. Lough Hyne’s rare sheltered reefs provide a home for many species rarely found in Ireland if at all.


The declining purple urchin (Paracentrotus lividus), the soft coral (Paraerythropodium coralloides), and two rare species of goby: Couche’s goby (Gobius couchi) and the red-mouthed goby (G. cruenatatus) all call Lough Hyne their home (DAHG, 2013). In all of Ireland, southern cup coral (Caryophillia inornatus) is only found in Lough Hyne. These are just a few examples of the variety of organisms found in the marine reserve. The lough was assigned protective status after over 100 years of scientific research carried out at the site (Kearney, 2013). It is through scientific research and investigation like this, that conservation and protective legislation can be properly informed and implemented.



Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht (2013) Site Name : Lough Hyne Nature Reserve and Environs SAC.

Duffy, J. E. (2003) Biodiversity loss, trophic skew and ecosystem functioning. Ecology Letters, 6(8), 680–687.

European Commission (1997) The Habitats Directive.

European Commission (2009) Birds Directive

Kearney, T. (2013) Lough Hyne – from Prehistory to the Present. Macalla Publishing. Ireland.

WWW1 – 12 SACs Within South-West Cork

WWW2- Special Areas of Conservation in West Cork

WWW3 – Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

WWW4 – Special Protected Areas Sheep’s Head to Toe Head 

For further information on Protected Areas see: http://webgis.npws.ie/npwsviewer/