Proof that we need to cherish protected areas across the UK

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Proof that we need to cherish protected areas across the UK

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Today’s guest blogger is Richard Bradbury from our Conservation Science team.

Our changing climate is forcing wildlife to move in response (see this blog, 26th June) – yet for decades nature conservation has placed huge emphasis on protected areas which are, by their very nature, fixed – do they have a future as climate change takes its toll? The answer, which we reveal in a paper published today in a leading scientific journal, is a resounding yes.

Here in the UK we have some very special place for wildlife. They have been shaped by both natural and human influences.  We have been left with a patchwork of sites that , with a few exceptions, require continuing management to maintain their nature conservation interest. We at RSPB are therefore great fans of protected areas – those sites like Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, where conditions can be managed for our special wildlife and where species are given critical protection from damaging development proposals.

The legal protection these sites receive has been criticised as a barrier to economic development, though sense prevailed in the review of the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives in England back in March. But issues remain – one concern is that, if species ranges need to shift in response to climate change, all these sites will be in the wrong place, reducing their relevance.

This sounds plausible, but it is flawed. Yes, some species may move out of some of the sites which have been designated for them, but research modelling the likely affects of climate change on species distributions suggests that many sites will retain their important species – in effect the quality of the site’s habitats will outweigh the impact of climate change for some time to come. Moreover, most sites are important for more than one species, so it’s unlikely that all the key species from a given site will move on.

And here’s the crunch. A lot of rare and threatened wildlife is very picky about what it requires from the landscape, so given their sensitivity, where on earth will species on the move find suitable locations to set up new homes anyway? Today’s paper, published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles this question head on.

Led by the University of York, with RSPB among the research partners, the paper capitalises on two things. First, in the UK we have a wonderful collection of data on the distributions of a wide range of wildlife, thanks to the magnificent efforts of both professional, and especially amateur, recorders. The paper was therefore able to analyse millions of records of wildlife species, sent in predominantly by members of the public. Secondly, and thanks largely to the availability of these great data-sets fuelled by citizen science, the UK has been at the fore-front of demonstrating that our wildlife is already responding to climate change, with wildlife as varied as birds, butterflies and dragonflies already showing strong northwards movements.    


Dartford Warbler, Ben Hall (rspb-images-com). One of the species shown by the study to be using protected areas to help its northwards spread.

In this paper, we were able to show the absolutely crucial role of protected areas in these northwards movements. On average, when arriving in new locations, species as varied as birds, beetles and spiders were around four times more likely to colonise protected areas than might be expected, given how much of the land surface they cover. And yes, we did account for any differences in recording effort between protected areas and other places! For seven species of birds and butterflies that we were able to study in the greatest detail, 40% of new colonisations occurred in the 8.4 per cent of the land that was protected, even though those sites hadn’t originally been protected for those species.

So, here is convincing proof that these sites will remain crucially important under climate change. Even if the composition of species within them may change, they remain the most important parts of the landscape for our most picky and vulnerable species.

Interestingly, despite the overwhelming importance of protected areas, the paper found that some sites which are not currently protected were also important. It will be crucial to assess these sites, and protect them where appropriate, if we are to complete the network called for in the Making Space for Nature and achieve the landscape-scale conservation that will be so crucial to helping our wildlife adapt to the challenge of climate change.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, but it’s always good to have the data to prove the apparently obvious! So, a huge thank you to everyone who submits their records and makes these analyses possible! And it provides another good reason to make sure that we cherish our protected areas across the UK, and that we have the resources to look after and manage them properly.

Have you noticed nature changing in ways which might be caused by climate change? If so, please do share your experiences below.

Comments
  • Richard, As the Law Commissiion is currently looking at wildlife legislation any replacement legislation may possibly result in the redesignation of SSSI as occurred in 1981.  This does have dangers in that some sites in unfavourable condition might get left off the list but I do wonder whether this will also be a big opportunity to add sites such as those you refer to.

  • I have been "blogging" for the last couple of days on the Guardian web site re Linklater's Post "The claws are out for the RSPB". Can we have an official rebuttal please ? These political assaults from the landed gentry have to be tackled seriously and quelled. The dismemberment of the NCC originated on the Scottish estates of our landed gentry and Linklater's sophistry has to be tackled forthrightly; conservation's reputation is at stake.

  • I have been "blogging" for the last couple of days on the Guardian web site re Linklater's Post "The claws are out for the RSPB". Can we have an official rebuttal please ? These political assaults from the landed gentry have to be tackled seriously and quelled. The dismemberment of the NCC originated on the Scottish estates of our landed gentry and Linklater's sophistry has to be tackled forthrightly; conservation's reputation is at stake.

  • There are no Ring Ousel in the South West and no Merlin either anymore or maybe just one remaining pair on Exmoor. I have checked. That last merlin will almost certainly have failed if it tried to nest this year, given the "cold monsoon" downpours of May and June which seem to typify our early summer weather now.