Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta: flowering at clearing edge. Coombes Valley RSPB reserve, Staffordshire

Protected areas and climate change

Protected areas are our most valuable wildlife sites. They are central to nature conservation in the UK.

Irreplaceable environments

National and international designations protect land and waters which reflect the diversity of soils, geology and topography of our islands, as well as biodiversity.

Climate change is the greatest threat facing biodiversity in the long-term. From changes in seasonal timings through to the impact of more frequent extreme events, the impacts of climate change on wildlife are already occurring.

Our designated sites protect not just the species which reside within them, but also the underpinning environmental conditions.

Many of our protected areas are composed of land which has been relatively undisturbed by human activity. Key environmental features such as low-nutrient soils and high water quality are now rare in the wider landscape, but well represented in protected areas.

Conditions like these are the foundation of diverse ecological communities. They will go on supporting a wide range of species even as species shift their distribution in response to climate change. 

Protected areas help accommodate change

Today's biodiversity is impoverished, and wildlife on the whole will struggle to cope with the additional demands of a changing climate.

A step change will be needed in the way we manage our natural environment to stabilise populations of most UK species and the status of our semi-natural habitats, let alone to reverse historic declines.

The first step in enabling wildlife to adapt to climate change is to build wildlife's resilience to extreme weather events and their impacts. The objectives of protected areas are to remove land use pressures (eg from agriculture or built development), and to bring and maintain sites into favourable condition. Both objectives will enhance resilience to climate change.

We must also seek to accommodate change as species respond to the changing climate.

For some species, providing plenty of habitat diversity within a site may be sufficient. Others will need to move between sites in order to find suitable climate and habitat. Where the wider countryside fails to provide habitat for many species, protected areas play an important role in enabling them to 'track' suitable climate conditions.

The species present at a given site will change over time, and site management will need to change to accommodate this. In our own 200+ nature reserves, we use climate change information in our  conservation management planning. 

Little egret Egretta garzetta, individual fishing in harbour, Looe, Cornwall