The effects of wind farms on upland birds

When wind farms are built in upland areas which support birds of conservation concern, we need to understand how these birds will respond.

Boulfruich Wind Farm, Houstry, Morven and / or Maiden Pap in the background, Caithness, Highland, Scotland

Overview

Wind farms are a key tool to combat climate change and continue to be constructed onshore in the UK.

Wind farms are often located away from major population centres and in areas with high wind speeds, such as upland areas. These areas tend to support a variety of bird species of conservation concern, often with restricted breeding ranges.

Birds are regarded as being particularly sensitive to wind farms, because they may collide with the turbines, or be disturbed and displaced away from otherwise suitable habitats.

Given the potential for such impacts and for the considerable overlap between upland bird distributions and wind farm development, there is an urgent need to understand how wind farm developments within the UK uplands will affect birds.

Objectives

  • To test whether upland birds are displaced from wind farms.
  • To test whether wind farms have an impact on the breeding success of key species, such as golden plover.
  • To better understand how upland birds are affected by risk of collisions with turbines.

Progress

  • A number of studies have been completed, investigating the potential for overlap between wind farms and upland birds and the extent to which the abundance and distribution of a range of upland species has been affected by wind farm construction and operation across several wind farm sites. There is ongoing analysis, investigating these effects in relation to breeding waders, at a further wind farm site.
  • Flight activity data of white-tailed eagles within an operational wind farm in Norway has been collected and used to assess estimates of collision risk.
  • Data on the flight heights and behaviour of hen harriers has been collected in relation to collision risk, as part of an ongoing study.

Planned Work

A PhD project is aiming to improve our knowledge of bird flight behaviour and habitat use, which are leading factors in species' vulnerability to wind farms.

The project will use data provided from Norway and the UK, along with observational fieldwork, to improve our understanding of flight behaviours. Species included in this project will be those vulnerable to collisions at wind farms due to specific behaviours (eg display flights).

This information will be used to develop ecological models to better understand impacts of wind farms on birds and reduce ornithological impacts of energy developments.

Results

Multi-site studies using data from wind farms located on upland habitats in the UK show mixed effects of wind farm construction across a range of species.

  • One found that some upland bird species reduced their use of habitat close to wind turbines during the breeding season, potentially reducing their breeding density at wind farm sites.
  • A second study found red grouse, snipe and curlew densities all declined on wind farms during construction. There were no consistent post-construction population declines, suggesting, for some species, wind farm construction could have greater impacts than wind farm operation.
  • A single site study at an operational wind farm, showed no evidence for any sustained declines or altered distribution of golden plover or red grouse. However, a more detailed study covering a baseline, construction and operation found a 79 per cent decline in golden plovers during operation and a shift in distribution away from turbines. No changes in breeding success were detected, suggesting birds were responding to turbines rather than being indirectly affected.
  • A study considering predictions of collision risk models, using white-tailed eagle data, highlighted the effect increasing survey effort has on reducing the uncertainty around estimates of the numbers of likely collisions. 

Contacts

Coast on a stormy day

Dr David Douglas

Principal Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

david.douglas@rspb.org.uk
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Dr Aly McCluskie

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

aly.mccluskie@rspb.org.uk
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Dr Staffan Roos

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

staffan.roos@rspb.org.uk
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Dr Alex Sansom

Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

alex.sansom@rspb.org.uk
Tagged with: Country: Scotland Country: Norway Habitat: Upland Species: Buzzard Species: Curlew Species: Dunlin Species: Golden plover Species: Greenshank Species: Hen harrier Species: Kestrel Species: Lapwing Species: Meadow pipit Species: Oystercatcher Species: Red grouse Species: Skylark Species: Snipe Species: Stonechat Species: Wheatear Species: White-tailed eagle Project status: Ongoing Project types: Research