Protecting systematically selected areas of land is a major step towards biodiversity conservation worldwide. Indeed, the identification and designation of protected areas more often than not forms a core component of both national and international conservation policies. In this paper we provide an overview of those Special Protection Areas and Ramsar Sites that have been classified in Great Britain as of 1998/99 for a selection of wintering waterbird species, using bird count data from the Wetland Bird Survey. The performance of this network of sites is remarkable, particularly in comparison with published analyses of networks elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, the current site-based approach, whilst having the great benefit of simplicity, is deliberately biased towards aggregating species at the expense of the more dispersed distribution species. To ensure that the network continues successfully to protect nationally and internationally important waterbird populations, efforts now need to concentrate on the derivation of species-specific representation targets and, in particular, the ways in which these can be incorporated into the site selection process. Although these analyses concern the performance of protected areas for waterbirds in Great Britain, the results have wide-ranging importance for conservation planning in general and the design of protected area networks.