Offshore wind energy - draft sectoral marine plan: habitat regulations appraisal

The habitats regulations appraisal is completed in accordance with the Habitats Regulations that implement the EC Habitats and Birds Directives in UK waters and has been completed for the sectoral marine plan for offshore wind.

Non-Technical Summary


The Scottish Government is currently developing a plan for future commercial offshore wind development in Scottish waters. This new plan builds upon the preceding 2013 draft plan for offshore wind generation and now also seeks to provide opportunities for deep-water wind technologies which may become commercially viable for the period up to 2050.

This new ‘Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind’ needs to be accompanied by a Habitats Regulations Appraisal (HRA) process to assess the plan’s potential effects on international protected nature conservation sites. This HRA process has been undertaken as a sequence of discrete stages in accordance with established guidance for conducting plan-level HRA that was produced by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in 2015. Further summary details about the scope and methods of the HRA process are presented below.

Scope of the Habitats Regulations Appraisal

The Habitats Regulations implement the EC Habitats and Birds Directives in UK waters and require that an Appropriate Assessment (AA) should be undertaken where a plan or project is not directly connected with or necessary for management of designated European sites or offshore European sites and where the possibility of a likely significant effect (LSE) on these sites cannot be excluded, either alone or in combination with other plans or projects. These sites include the following which comprise the Natura 2000 network:

  • Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated under the EC Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna & Fauna (the Habitats Directive); and
  • Special Protection Areas (SPAs) sites classified under the EC Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (the Birds Directive).

In the UK, these requirements are also extended to the consideration of effects on:

  • Ramsar Sites (listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance); and
  • sites that are proposed for designation and inclusion in the Natura 2000 network and those sites that are currently in the process of being classified such as: potential SPAs (pSPAs), candidate and possible SACs (cSACs and pSACs) and Sites of Community Importance (SCIs).

As Competent Authority, Marine Scotland is responsible for producing an AA that assesses the impacts of the plan on these sites in fulfilment of the Habitats Regulations obligations.  This AA needs to determine whether there will be an ‘adverse effect on integrity’ (AEOI) on any sites with reference to their conservation objectives.

A major consideration for this HRA process is that the Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind has many inherent uncertainties associated it.  These relate to aspects such as: the detail of the implementation process; future generation capacities; the location, scale and densities of development with the DPOs; the proposed technologies to be used; the scale of the effects arising via some of the defined impact pathways; and the efficacy of some project-level mitigation options.

Although these uncertainties exist, a high level of certainty is required under the Habitats Regulations that AEOI of any European/Ramsar site will be avoided.  The HRA has therefore taken account of these issues and, where required, identified relevant mitigation measures to accompany the Plans.

Reporting and Consultation Stages

To assess the effects of the new ‘Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind’ on these European/Ramsar sites, the SNH guidance identifies a 13-step plan-level HRAs process.  This staged approach and has been adopted, and consulted upon, over three main project phases to ensure there is a high-level of clarity and auditability in the assessment process (an important requirement for strategic-level HRAs an important requirement for strategic-level HRAs which need to be carried out in an iterative, auditable and transparent manner).  The findings from each of these phases are presented in the following reports:

  • Phase 1 – Pre-screening Report (HRA Stages 1-3) (Appendix A);
  • Phase 2 – Review of Proposed Assessment Methodology (HRA Stage 4) (Appendix B); and
  • Phase 3 (this document) – Screening and Appropriate Assessment Information Report (AAIR) (HRA Stages 5, 8, 9 and 10).

The pre-screening Report, which was produced by Marine Scotland in June 2018, is the first phase of the HRA process. The report sets out the evidence base and the proposed methods to be applied for the subsequent screening/scoping and assessment stages of the HRA work.  The methods proposed were based on available guidance and established best practice that has been developed over the course of multiple preceding plan-level HRAs (and the associated stakeholder and Project Steering Group discussions which accompanied them) undertaken over the last decade.

In addition to reviewing the screening methods, the pre-screening report also identified an initial list of 652 European/Ramsar sites, and their qualifying interest habitats and species, for which there could be a LSE (or the possibility of LSE could not be excluded at this stage) from the plan.  This list encompassed all sites within an objective and quantifiable ‘pre-screening buffer zone’ which encompassed the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Scotland plus a 100 km buffer south of the Scottish border. Since production of the pre-screening report, locations of the Draft Plan Options (DPOs) have been agreed, allowing the initial pre-screening list to be rationalised based on the provision of a 100 km buffer around the DPOs and, as a first step, acknowledging all European/Ramsar sites within this buffer (the screening list).

For the second phase, the Pre-screening Report was consulted upon and the ‘Review of Proposed Assessment Methodology’ report produced in November 2018.  This considered the consultation responses received during Phase 1 (pre-screening report) and, acknowledging the feedback, revisited the proposed HRA scoping and assessment methods where appropriate.  It also considered the implications of key EU and UK case-law judgements made during the summer of 2018 (i.e. between the production of the Phase 1 and Phase 2 reports) and how these should be acknowledged within this HRA process.

The second report was discussed at a Project Steering Group meeting on 9 November 2018. During this process the feedback received was generally positive and it was agreed that the methods proposed in the Phase 1 pre-screening report would be applied with some minor changes, as detailed within the Phase 2 report.

This document, the ‘Screening and Appropriate Assessment Information’ report, presents the outcomes from the third phase of the strategic HRA process.  It reviews the impacts of the plan based on the 17 Draft Plan Option areas (DPOs) for potential offshore windfarm development. A summary of the methods and results from this third phase review is presented below.

Screening (HRA Stage 5)

This stage implements a secondary sifting process whereby the pre-screening list of European/Ramsar sites and features are reviewed to identify those sites for which there is the potential for a LSE, (or where one cannot be excluded. It is also an exercise for which sites can be screened out of the assessment where no LSE or impact pathway exists.  The screening phase included the following activities:

  • Downloading the most recently updated JNCC database of internationally protected nature conservation sites and their associated ecological interest features;
  • Provision of an initial screening list encompassing all European/Ramsar sites within 100 km of the DPOs.
  • Removal of all Category D sites and features from the screening list.
  • Removal of all terrestrial and freshwater interest features that would not be impacted by the Plan
  • Literature reviews covering migratory movements and foraging ranges of marine mammals, seabirds and fish.
  • Further screening of each interest feature group which included screening in certain bird, marine mammal and fish features beyond the 100 km buffer and screening out certain mobile features where no LSE identified.

A precautionary approach has been adopted to the assessment, as required, in order to ensure that no relevant sites or features are excluded.  Therefore, the presumption during this screening process (and throughout the HRA) was to screen sites and interest features into the assessments unless a definitive judgement of no LSE could be made, in which case they could then be excluded.

Screening Results

Following the screening process, a total of 468 European/Ramsar sites were identified that needed to be considered within the assessment.  This was reduced from 652 European/Ramsar sites identified at the pre-screening stage, carried out before the 17 DPOs had been confirmed. These European/Ramsar sites include of 267 SACs, 150 SPAs (15 of which were pSPAs) and 51 Ramsar. Of these sites, 121 (112 SACs; 9 SPAs) were represented by non-UK sites, although 14 of these were located within the 100 km screening buffer. These European/Ramsar sites were taken forward into the assessment phase of the HRA.

In order to accommodate project-level case law lessons and the judgements that took place in July and August 2018, it was recommended that Stages 6 and 7, which direct the consideration of mitigation measures at the screening stage, are not formally considered (see Review of Proposed Assessment Methodology report, Appendix B).  Instead the process would move from Stage 5 directly to Stage 8.

Appropriate Assessment (HRA Stages 8 and 9[1])

This section covered Stages 8 and 9 (the AA information and the application of additional measures to ensure no adverse effect).  The assessment phase included the following activities:

  • Review of the potential impacts on seabed habitat, bird species, marine mammal species; diadromous (migratory) fish and freshwater pearl mussel species and otter (Stage 8 of the Guidance);
  • Consideration and a review of in-combination effects
  • A concluding review of the potential impacts from the Sectoral Offshore Wind Plan (Stage 8 of the Guidance);
  • Consideration and a review of mitigation measures required to ensure that there is no AEOI and a full review of project-level mitigation.

Appropriate Assessment Information Report Results

In advance of considering mitigation measures, it could not be concluded that there will be no AEOI on any European/Ramsar sites.  This is because of the inherent uncertainties that exist about future developments.  These uncertainties relate to several aspects such as:

  • The detail of the Plan implementation process;
  • Future generation capacities;
  • The location, scale and densities of development;
  • The proposed technologies to be used and future advances in these technologies;
  • The scale of the effects arising via some of the defined impact pathways; and
  • the efficacy of some project-level mitigation options.

Recognising these uncertainties, and the conclusions of Stage 8 (see above), there is clearly a need for appropriate and meaningful mitigation measures to accompany the Plan.

Based on current scientific understanding, it was concluded that development of windfarm projects at DPOs E3, NE2, NE3, NE4, NE5 could lead to an AEOI as a result of in-combination effects with other windfarm projects. At this time, an AEOI from in-combination effects was also considered possible if development were to occur at NE6.


Key plan-level mitigation integral to the Draft Plan will be the requirement for project-level HRA and the implementation of the Plan through an iterative and adaptive management process – the Iterative Plan Review (IPR).  Project-level assessments and the associated monitoring review work will be linked to (and will inform) regular reviews of the Plan as part of the IPR process.

Further to these mitigation measures, the following plan level mitigation measures were identified as required to avoid AEOI:

  • The classification of DPOs E3 and NE2-6 as being ‘subject to high levels of ornithological constraint’. It is proposed, therefore, that development will be unable to progress at these DPOs until  such time that enough evidence on the environmental capacity for seabirds exists to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. This will involve the resolution of knowledge gaps through potential strategic monitoring; and
  • The completion of regional-level survey work to address knowledge gaps regarding potential impacts of development within DPOs E1 and E2.

Based on these measures it is concluded that it would be possible to avoid adverse effects on Natura 2000 features.

In the event that concurrent construction noise in a particular geographical region requires further consideration, then there is potential to implement sequencing of developments within the same broad geographical region. However, such an approach could extend the duration of effects. It is considered that such risks are most appropriately and effectively managed at project level.

This whole document represents Stage 10 of the HRA process – the draft record of the HRA. The final Stages (11-13) will follow consultation and amendments to the document.

How do I respond to the consultation?

We are inviting responses to this consultation by 25 March 2020.

Please respond to this consultation using the Scottish Government’s consultation hub, Citizen Space ( You can access and respond to this consultation online at You can save and return to your responses while the consultation is still open. Please ensure that consultation responses are submitted before the closing date of 25 March 2020.

If you are unable to respond using our consultation hub, please complete the Respondent Information Form to:

Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind Energy Consultation
Scottish Government
Marine Planning and Policy Division
Area GB North
Victoria Quay
Edinburgh EH6 6QQ

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