The importance of protected areas in climate change adaptation

Protected areas have been important in enabling colonisation of species in the UK.

Little egret Egretta garzetta, standing on brick wall with fluffed up feathers, Hampshire


Setting aside places where species are provided protection and appropriate management is a key element of conservation strategies around the world. But can networks of these ‘protected areas’ (PAs) still offer useful protection to the species they are designed to protect if the ranges of those species shifts in response to climate change?

This series of projects seeks to understand how species have used, and would be expected to use, UK PA networks as their ranges change.


  • To understand whether species from a range of taxa have used PAs disproportionately as they have expanded their ranges in the UK in recent decades.
  • To understand whether wetland bird species have used PAs disproportionately when colonising the UK from Europe.
  • To understand likely population changes of birds in sites across the UK Special Protected Area network, as a result of the effects of climate change, to understand the implications for designation and management of these sites.


Work on this topic has been conducted through three collaborative projects. Two projects are complete, the third is ongoing.

The first project was a NERC knowledge exchange grant, led by the University of York; the second project was a research contract from Defra, led by the BTO; the third project is a PhD studentship at the University of York.

Planned Work

The final project of three is a PhD due to complete in 2015 (Jonathan Hiley, University of York), from which we expect several more journal papers.


In the first project, records from intensive surveys revealed that seven bird and butterfly species have colonized PAs more than four times more frequently than expected from the availability of PAs in the landscapes colonized.

Records of an additional 256 invertebrate species with less-intensive surveys supported these findings and showed that 98 per cent of species are disproportionately associated with PAs in newly colonized parts of their ranges.

Although colonizing species favoured PAs in general, species vary greatly in their reliance on PAs, reflecting differences in the dependence of individual species on particular habitats and other conditions that are available only in PAs. 
In the second project, known by the acronym ‘Chainspan’, climate–abundance models were developed which were able to explain 56 per cent of the variation in recent 30-year population trends of a range of bird species. With confidence that the models could be used to hind-cast in this way, we then used the models to investigate how future populations might change under climate conditions corresponding to a 4:0 º C change in average global temperature.

This was projected to cause UK declines of at least 25 per cent for more than half of the internationally important populations considered. Despite this, most EU Special Protection Areas in the UK were projected to retain species in sufficient abundances to maintain their legal status and generally sites which are important now were still projected to be important in the future.

Whilst declines in vulnerable northern species seem likely, management to improve site-quality and reduce the severity of other pressures may reduce the magnitude of such reductions. Management to increase site-size and quality may also increase the ability of sites to accommodate change. In general, the implementation of existing legal and policy mechanisms may be adapted to enable such changes to occur on the ground and therefore maximise the opportunities for appropriate steps to help birds in the UK to adapt to climate change.
In the third project, we have examined the extent to which wetland bird species colonizing the UK since 1960 have exploited PAs. Colonization commenced in a PA for all six species which established permanent (greater than 10 years) breeding populations in the UK during this period. Subsequently, birds started to breed outside as well as inside PAs: the colonizing species showing declining fractions of breeding within PAs over time, a trend not seen in already-resident species. This led us to conclude that PAs were valuable as ‘landing pads’ for range-shifting species first arriving in a new region, and then as ‘establishment centres’ from which viable populations spread. 


Coast on a stormy day

Dr Richard Bradbury

Head of People Conservation Science, Conservation Science
Tagged with: Country: UK Habitat: Grassland Habitat: Heathland Habitat: Marine and intertidal Habitat: Upland Habitat: Wetland Habitat: Woodland Project status: Project types: Site protection