Conservation and Protected Areas

Marine protected areas are notoriously tricky to understand and there are a variety of designations (often overlapping) which provide different levels of protection. It can get confusing, so we have tried to make things a little simpler for you:



Image: Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) 2015

Marine Conservation Zones

Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are a type of protected area at sea where human activity is restricted to protect marine wildlife and habitats, designated by the UK Government. Devon has been designated 15 MCZs listed below:

Tamar Estuary
Skerries Bank and surrounds
Bideford to Foreland Point
Hartland Point to Tintagel
Erme Estuary
Avon Estuary
Dart Estuary
Axe Estuary
Otter Estuary
Morte Platform
East of Start Point
North West of Lundy
South West Approaches to the Bristol Channel

15 may seem like a large number, but there are still ecologically important areas of Devon’s seas that remain unprotected. There are also question marks raised about the effectiveness of MCZs as most fail to operate ‘No Take Zones’.


Find out more about Marine Conservation Zones


Special Protected Areas & Special Areas of Conservation

Unlike MCZs, Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation are areas protected by European law. They are part of a network of protected areas (the ‘Natura 2000’ network) designed to protect the wildlife most at risk.


Special Protected Areas
SPAs are areas identified as of international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or migration of rare and vulnerable species of birds. SPAs in Devon:

Exe Estuary
Tamar Estuaries Complex


Special Areas of Conservation
SACs are areas which have been given special protection under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. Unlike SPAs, they provide increased protection to a variety of wild animals, plants and habitats and are a vital part of global efforts to conserve the world’s biodiversity. SACs with coastal/estuarine features in Devon:


Blackstone Point
Braunton Burrows
Dawlish Warren
Lundy Island
Lyme Bay and Torbay
Sidmouth to West Bay
South Devon Shore Dock




Image: Rebecca Withers


Find out more about Special Protected Areas & Special Areas of Conservation 


Ramsar Sites

Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance that have been designated for containing representative, rare or unique wetland types or for their importance in conserving biological diversity. The Exe Estuary is Devon’s only Ramsar Site, designated in 1992.

Find out more about Ramsar Sites


Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)

AONBs in Devon have been designated in recognition of their national importance, by Natural England, and their primary aim is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the designated landscape and can be comparable to National Parks. Devon has 5 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; 4 of which cover significant areas of coastline/estuaries:


Tamar Valley
North Devon
South Devon
East Devon





Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

A SSSI is a formal conservation designation allocated by Natural England. Usually, it describes an area that’s of interest to science due to the rare species of wildlife, plants or important geological or physiological features within its boundaries. SSSIs can be designated to give higher levels of protection that other designations such as AONBs.

Devon has a multitude of SSSIs, many of which have been recognised due to their coastal features.


National Marine Park

The Plymouth Sound has been designated as the UK’s first National Marine Park. Why Plymouth? Well, Plymouth has a rich maritime heritage, a successful and productive fishing industry, world renowned marine science and engineering, a marine city deal and marine enterprise zone, the largest Naval base in Western Europe, and a National Marine Aquarium.

But what exactly does it mean to have a Marine Park? What level of protection does it bring? Find out more about Plymouth’s National Marine Park 








Image: University of Plymouth


UNESCO Biosphere Reserve & Marine Pioneer

North Devon is home to a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Biosphere is one of 668 Reserves in 122 countries designated by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme and was the first of 6 to be designated in the UK.

North Devon is also a ‘Marine Pioneer’; one of four pioneers that will be used to test innovative ideas for governance of the environment and to inform the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

Find out more about the North Devon Biosphere Reserve & Marine Pioneer


County Wildlife Sites

There are approximately 2,200 County Wildlife Sites across Devon comprising a range of habitats and species. Unlike Sites of Special Scientific Interest, County Wildlife Sites are not legally protected but form a network of non-statutory wildlife sites.

Find out more about County Wildlife Sites


Voluntary Marine Conservation Areas (VMCAs)

VMCAs are designations for areas of coastline which are of particular wildlife and scientific value. They are voluntarily run by a range of organisations and steering groups, often supported by community or volunteer groups, but have no legal form of protection.

VMCAs in Devon:

Wembury and surrounding area
North Devon