AN AREA of moorland which is home to ten pairs of hen harriers has been designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) in an attempt to help protect what RSPB Scotland has called Britain's "most persecuted birds".
The stretch of 9,000 hectares in Renfrewshire Heights, in Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park, south of Greenock, is one of two new SPAs. The island of Oronsay, together with the southern part of Colonsay in Argyll, home to colonies of rare choughs and corncrakes, has also been given SPA status.
Conservationists say the new designation will mean stricter planning rules for the areas and it will also help support farmers to encourage the use of "wildlife-friendly" farming methods.
Lloyd Austin, head of conservation policy for RSPB Scotland, said: "On one hand there is the protection side, which means strict planning laws have to be applied in these areas, and secondly there is the need to ensure appropriate management."
Hen harriers, targeted by gamekeepers because of their pursuit of red grouse, are among Britain's rarest birds with a population of fewer than 750 pairs, most of which are in Scotland.
Corncrakes, a summer visitor once found all over Britain, are now only found in western areas of Scotland, where they can find the hay meadows and iris beds, their favoured habitats.
Choughs, found in Colonsay and Islay, are a red billed crow which indulge in spectacular swooping aerobatic displays in spring. The beetle-eating birds thrive in cattle grazing areas along the coast.
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said: "This is a very welcome addition to the network of internationally protected sites recognised for their rare habitats and the birds and wildlife that they support.
"It will provide significant extra protection for choughs, corncrakes and hen harriers, all of which have suffered long-term population declines and loss of range.
"The challenge now is to make sure that land managers get the necessary support to guarantee that the sites are preserved."
The SPA designation follows consultation by Scottish Natural Heritage with local land owners and occupiers on behalf of the Scottish Government.
Michael Russell, the minister for the environment, said: "Scotland is a stronghold for hen harriers in the UK and I'm very pleased to provide this extra security for the species in the Clyde Muirshiel area.
"Responsible land management is helping maintain chough and corncrake numbers on Oronsay and south Colonsay, and I would like to thank those involved. The area being designated as an SPA will be an additional boost to these efforts.
"Scotland is home to a rich and varied biodiversity and we must do everything we can to protect this wonderful natural resource."
SUPPORTING VULNERABLE BIRDS
SCOTLAND currently has 144 Special Protection Areas, which are designated to support rare, vulnerable birds and their habitats.
The SPAs are classified under the EC Wild Birds Directive and to qualify areas must contain at least 1 per cent of the UK population of a particular species.
Being awarded SPA status gives an area greater protection than the designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Both the new SPA sites were awarded SSSI status in 2005, but it has taken until now to satisfy the tougher EU regulations.
Scottish Natural Heritage acts as an adviser to the Scottish Government, suggesting suitable sites and consulting land owners and users to discuss proposed boundaries and characteristics.
An area becoming an SPA means help is available to farmers to encourage more "wildlife-friendly" methods of farming.