Natural England and JNCC Conservation Advice for Marine Protected Areas
Outer Thames Estuary SPA

Natural England and JNCC guidance

This site collection contains Natural England’s and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)'s conservation advice for this site. It fulfils Natural England’s and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)'s responsibility under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended), and JNCC's responsibility under The Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to give advice on how to further the conservation objectives for the site, identify the activities that are capable of affecting the qualifying features and the processes which they are dependent upon. The advice reflects the views of both Natural England and JNCC.

Natural England's and JNCC's conservation advice for this site is made up of a number of components. You will need to consider: Additional information for consideration:

Site information

Site name: Outer Thames Estuary SPA
Designation type: SPA
Site identification: UK9020309
Latest classification date: 31 October 2017
Qualifying features
(click to see site specific description):

General information on the site features:
You can find generic information on the qualifying species from the following websites: The generic information on the supporting habitats for the qualifying features is useful for understanding the qualifying features, and should be used in conjunction with the site specific information.
Designated area (ha): 392451.66
Moderation/boundary changes: First classified on 20th August 2010. The SPA was extended in November 2017 to include common tern and little tern.
Component Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI):
Overlapping Protected Areas:

Last updated: 13th September 2019

Background information and geography

The Outer Thames Estuary SPA is located on the southeast coast of England, stretching from Caister-on-Sea in Norfolk down the Suffolk coast to Sheerness on the Kent coastline, and reaching as far as Canvey Island into the Thames Estuary. The SPA is divided into three discreet areas: the outer estuary of the Thames (including Kent and Essex coastal waters); the Suffolk and south Norfolk coastal waters; and an offshore area further northeast. The site crosses the 12 nautical mile boundary and therefore lies partly in territorial and partly in offshore waters. Natural England and JNCC have jointly prepared this advice.

The SPA consists of areas of shallow and deeper water, high tidal current streams and a range of mobile sediments. Large areas of mud, silt and gravelly sediments form the deeper water channels, including the port approaches to London. The seabed in the area of the Norfolk and Suffolk coast is of a similar composition to that in the main estuary with large shallow areas of mud, sand, silt and gravelly sediments but, less disturbance through shipping or dredging because the area is north of Harwich and Felixstowe. Sand and silt dominates the offshore areas, as is typical of the southern North Sea.

Throughout much of the site, sand forms large sandbanks separated by troughs. In the northern part of the site the main sandbanks are (north to south) Middle Cross Sand, Scroby Sands, Helm Sand, Newcombe Sand, Aldeburgh Napes, Aldeburgh Ridge, North Ship Head and Bawdsey Bank; in the southern part of the site the main sandbanks are Red Sand, Kentish Flats, West and East Barrow, Sunk Sand, Shingles, Long Sand, Margate Sand and Kentish Knock. In some areas, the crests of the sandbanks are above Mean High Water, such as Scroby Sands.

The coastal parts of the site consist of shingle and sand beaches, rapidly eroding low cliffs and mudflat-lined estuaries. The site abuts already designated SPAs at parts of the Rivers Yare and Bure, Minsmere and around Foulness. Intertidal mud banks and sandbanks separated from the mainland coast by subtidal areas at mean low water are within the SPA boundary, except where they are within the boundaries of existing SPAs.

The site is designated for non-breeding red-throated diver (Gavia stellata), a diving seabird which overwinters in large numbers within the southern North Sea, feeding predominately on fish. The red-throated diver lives mostly in shallow inshore waters, except when coming ashore to breed as observed in the north of Scotland in summer. This species uses the SPA for all other activities, including feeding, roosting, bathing and preening.

The site is also designated for breeding common tern (Sterna hirundo) and little tern (Sternula albifrons). Both tern species breed on the dynamic Scroby Sands intertidal sandbank, located 6km offshore from Great Yarmouth and within this SPA (Natural England (NE) and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), 2015). The Outer Thames Estuary SPA protects important at-sea foraging waters for common and little tern which breed at six adjacent SPAs: Great Yarmouth North Denes; Benacre to Easton Bavents; Breydon Water; Minsmere-Walberswick; Alde-Ore Estuary; Foulness; and Thanet Coast and Sandwich Bay SPAs. The coastal waters of the SPA are used for foraging, as well as a wide range of maintenance activities, such as bathing and loafing. Terns nesting on the Scroby Sands sandbank and nearby Great Yarmouth North Denes SPA may also forage within the adjacent Greater Wash SPA, suggesting there is a degree of connectivity between sites.

Site maps

Use the MAGIC website and the JNCC Interactive Mapper to see site maps, including habitats, species and other marine designations.

These maps are based on best available evidence, there are some caveats associated with the maps on MAGIC.

Conservation objectives

The site’s conservation objectives apply to the site and the individual species and/or assemblage of species for which the site has been classified (the "Qualifying features" listed above).

The objectives are to ensure that, subject to natural change, the integrity of the site is maintained or restored as appropriate, and that the site contributes to achieving the aims of the Wild Birds Directive, by maintaining or restoring:
  • the extent and distribution of the habitats of the qualifying features
  • the structure and function of the habitats of the qualifying features
  • the supporting processes on which the habitats of the qualifying features rely
  • the populations of each of the qualifying features
  • the distribution of qualifying features within the site

Qualifying features

Refer to the site information table above for the list of features within this site.

This should be read in conjunction with the accompanying supplementary advice section, which provides more detailed information to help achieve the objectives set out above, including which attributes should be maintained and which restored.

The conservation objectives apply under the Habitats Regulations, and as it is transposed into the offshore area within The Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, must be considered during a Habitats Regulation Assessment, including an Appropriate Assessment.

The conservation objectives and accompanying supplementary advice provide a framework to inform the management and measures needed to conserve or restore the European site, and the prevention of deterioration and significant disturbance of its qualifying features.

Where the objectives are met, the site will be considered to show a high level of integrity, and to be contributing to achieving the aims of the Habitats Regulations.

Supplementary Advice on Conservation Objectives

See supplementary advice on conservation objectives for this site, which aim to describe the range of ecological attributes that are most likely to contribute to a site’s overall integrity.

Last updated: 13th September 2019

Advice on Operations

See the advice on operations for this site to view information on the sensitivity of features in this site to the pressures exerted by different activities.

Last updated: 13th March 2020

Advice on Seasonality

See the advice on seasonality for this site, to view the months in which each mobile feature occurs in this site.

Last updated: 15th March 2019

Feature Condition

In 2016, Natural England trialled and rolled out a new Marine Protected Area (MPA) condition assessment methodology that provides robust results and information on the condition of marine features designated within MPAs in England. With guidance from National teams and using all available evidence and condition monitoring data, Area Teams conduct these assessments following a standardised approach that assesses if the feature and sub feature conservation targets set for each MPA have been met.

To date, condition assessments have been completed for a number of features in a range of marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) by the National and Area Teams. Further marine habitat features in SACs and other MPAs will continue to be assessed in the future. The new method can now also be applied to complete habitat and species condition assessments for other MPAs in England, whilst still meeting the different processes in place to report on the results of condition of features in Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Different processes are currently in place to decide and report on the condition of non-marine habitat and species features of SACs.

The main part of the assessment process is directly undertaken and stored here on Natural England’s Designated Sites View. The details for the most recent assessments of this site can be found here.

Management measures

If you are carrying out an environmental assessment, planning an operation or assessing an operation or proposal, it is important to consult with the following organisations where applicable. To find out if any management measures, byelaws or other restrictions apply to your activity see the management measure page or you can use the following links for more information.

The Marine Management Organisation license, regulate and plan marine activities in the seas around England and Wales so that they’re carried out in a sustainable way.
Environment Agency are responsible for regulating major industry and waste, water quality and resources, fisheries, inland river, estuary and harbour navigations, conservation and ecology.
Offshore Petroleum Regulator for the Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED) regulates oil and gas, CCS and gas storage activities in the marine environment.

Further information

For further information relating to this designated site you can refer to the following resources:
Site specific information: Other information:
For further information about this site contact: Natural England enquiries Telephone: 0300 060 3900. Email: