Orkney Islands Council
Working together for a better Orkney

Natural Heritage Areas

The Orkney Islands are particularly valued for their diverse natural heritage and a range of sites are internationally, nationally or locally designated for conservation. The following paragraphs explain the different protected area designations:

Natura 2000

Natura 2000 is a network of internationally important protected sites representing areas of the highest value for natural habitats and species of plants and animals which are rare, endangered or vulnerable in the European Community. The term Natura 2000 comes from the 1992 EC Habitats Directive; it symbolises the conservation of precious natural resources for the year 2000 and beyond into the 21st century. Scotland’s Natura 2000 sites will help to protect these important areas now and for the benefit of future generations. The Natura 2000 network includes two types of site:

  • Special Areas for Conservation (SAC) are classified under the Habitats Directive for the protection of rare, endangered or vulnerable natural habitats and species of plants or animals, both terrestrial and marine. These are the 189 habitats listed in Annex I and the 788 species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive. Species occurring in Orkney for which the UK has special responsibility include otter, grey seal and common seal.
  • Special Protection Areas (SPA) are classified under the Birds Directive and are sites which support rare and vulnerable species listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive, as well as regularly occurring migratory species. SPAs are intended to safeguard the habitats of the species for which they are selected and to protect the birds from significant disturbance.

In Scotland SACs and SPAs are given legal protection by the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (also known as the Habitats Regulations). The Habitats Regulations ensure that any plan or project that may damage a Natura site - for example, a proposed development or an activity requiring a license - is first assessed and can only go ahead if certain strict conditions are met.

Ramsar Sites

Ramsar Sites are internationally important wetland sites protecting wildfowl habitat. All Ramsar sites in Scotland are also either SPAs or SACs and many are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), although the boundaries of the different designations are not always exactly the same. There is no specific legal framework that safeguards Scottish Ramsar sites; however they benefit from the measures required to protect and enhance the Natura sites and SSSIs which overlap them, and are afforded the same policy protection as Natura sites.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) form a national network of the best examples of natural features throughout Scotland, and support a wider network across Great Britain.

SSSIs are those areas of land and water (to the seaward limits of local authority areas) that best represent Scotland’s natural heritage - its diversity of plants, animals, habitats, geology or geomorphology, or a combination of such natural features. 

They are the essential building blocks of Scotland's protected areas for nature conservation and many are also designated as Natura sites.  SSSIs are designated under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and are protected by law. It is an offence for any person to intentionally or recklessly damage the protected natural features of an SSSI.

Most SSSIs are in private ownership and Scottish Natural Heritage works closely with their owners and managers to ensure appropriate management of the sites’ natural features; and to ensure decision-makers, land managers, their agents and advisors, as well as local authorities and other public bodies, are aware of SSSIs when considering changes in land-use or other activities which might affect them. 

Any Scottish public body proposing to carry out an operation that may affect an SSSI must notify Scottish Natural Heritage before starting.  If the public body thinks the operation may damage the protected natural features of the SSSI, they must apply to Scottish Natural Heritage for consent before starting.

Geological Conservation Review (GCR)

Geological Conservation Review (GCR) sites are sites of national importance that illustrate key geological or geomorphological features of Britain’s earth heritage. Many GCR sites in Orkney are designated as SSSIs.

Local Nature Reserves (LNR)

Local Nature Reserves (LNR) are places with special local natural interest, that are designated and managed by local authorities to give people better opportunities to learn about and enjoy nature close to where they live.

Local Nature Conservation Sites (LNCS)

The Local Nature Conservation Site (LNCS) designation is a non-statutory designation given by local authorities to areas of locally important natural heritage interest. LNCS are regarded as being worthy of protection due to their ornithological, botanical or geological/geomorphological interest. LNCS in Orkney are identified and discussed in Annex 1 of the Council’s Draft Supplementary Guidance Natural Heritage and Policy N2 of the Orkney Local Development Plan.

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