Action is being taken across the EU to complete the network of Special Areas of Conservation. The EU deadline for designation of SACs is end of 2012.
Special Areas of Conservation are designated under the EU Habitats Directive to protect rare and threatened species and habitats of European importance. The species and habitats include harbour seal, reefs and sandbanks. The Sound of Barra SAC proposal would protect all three of these species.
The harbour seal is one of Scotland’s most iconic species. The seal colony in Sound of Barra has a long history and is one of the most north westerly colonies in the EU.
Eight Special Areas of Conservation for harbour seal have been designated around other parts of Scotland’s coast. No SAC has so far been designated for the species in the Outer Hebrides. Harbour seal numbers are declining throughout Scottish waters, including in the Outer Hebrides.
Recent scientific surveys have also discovered that all four types of sandbanks protected under the EU Habitats Directive are found in the Sound of Barra – including seagrass and mearl beds, which are coral-like structures.
Scottish Natural Heritage have advised that seagrass beds, and maerl beds are of particular value due to the numbers of species they support, their rarity and their degree of sensitivity.
SNH have advised that the Sound of Barra probably has the largest maerl beds found in the UK (around 9 km2) and there are extensive seagrass beds (3.6 km2).
East Mingulay SAC is the only Lophelia petrusa coral reef that has been discovered in UK waters out to 12 nautical miles, supporting more than 400 marine species.
The Scottish Government has the responsibility of implementing the EU Habitats Directive in Scotland.