The EU Birds and Habitats directives are ensuring protection of climatically suitable bird habitat

98% of the UK’s population of Northern gannets are estimated to reside in SPAs © Flickpicpete

Sites designated under the European Union Birds and Habitats directives (the ‘Natura 2000 network’) are projected to have future climates that are more suitable for European birds than areas outside of the network, and Special Protected Areas (SPAs—those Natura 2000 identified for bird protection) will continue to largely support seabird and waterbird populations in the UK. 

Climate change has altered the distribution of numerous bird species over the past century (Zuckerberg et al. 2009, Auer and King 2014, Environmental Protection Agency 2014, Virkkala and Lehikoinen 2014, Gillings et al. 2015), bringing into dispute the continued value of protected areas under these changing environmental conditions. Natura 2000 is a network of Special Protected Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) spanning the European Union (EU), with the former being classified under the Birds Directive and the latter under the Habitats Directive. The network is an important part of EU nature and biodiversity policy and in total constitutes 27,384 sites covering 18% of the EU (European Commission 2015).

By modelling the distributions of 343 breeding birds under a range of future climate scenarios, Araújo and colleagues (2011) found that whilst birds were expected to have larger proportions of loser than winning species, the Natura 2000 network was found to retain climate suitability for birds better than randomly selected unprotected sites of the same total area.

Research by Johnston et al. (2013) demonstrates the validity of SPAs for seabird and wintering waterbird populations under climate change. SPAs are designated under the Birds Directive when they contain 1% of national populations (of rare or threatened species), 1% of biogeographic populations (migratory species) or at least 20,000 individual birds. Models demonstrated the continued importance of most EU Special Protected Areas in the UK, with most areas continuing to support birds in abundances required to maintain their legal status in the future, despite significant projected species turnover and changes in species-level abundances at each site.

More recent research highlights the importance of international policy in ensuring effective conservation, with increased abundance of annex 1 species compared to non-concern species in EU countries implementing policy over those not, with improved population trajectories the longer the policy had been in place (Donald et al. 2007, Sanderson et al. 2015). 

Together, these studies suggest that Natura 2000 sites are important in retaining climatically suitable habitat (Araujo et al. 2011), representing bird assemblages (Johnston et al. 2013) and in improving population trends through EU legislation (Donald et al. 2007, Sanderson et al. 2015).

Policy is therefore critical in ensuring the continued persistence of species under changing climatic conditions, with the nature directives and Natura 2000 being important tools for conservation efforts in a changing planet.

Related Species


Auer, S. K. and King, D. I. (2014) Ecological and life-history traits explain recent boundary shifts in elevation and latitude of western North American songbirds. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 23: 867–875.
Araújo, M. B., Alagador, D., Cabeza, M., Nogués-Bravo, D. and Thuiller, W. (2011) Climate change threatens European conseration areas. Ecol. Lett. 14: 484–492.
Donald, P. F., Sanderson, F. J., Burfield, I. J., Bierman, S. M., Gregory, R. D. and Waliczky, Z. (2007) International Conservation Policy Delivers Benefits for Birds in Europe. Science 317: 810–813.
Environmental Protection Agency (2014) Climate change indicators in the United States: Bird Wintering Ranges. Available at:
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Gillings, S., Balmer, D. E. and Fuller, R. J. (2015) Directionality of recent bird distribution shifts and climate change in Great Britain. Glob. Change Biol. 21: 2155–2168.
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Virkkala, R. and Lehikoinen, A. (2014) Patterns of climate-induced density shifts of species: poleward shifts faster in northern boreal birds than in southern birds. Glob. Change Biol. 20: 2995–3003.
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Zuckerberg, B., Woods, A. M. and Porter, W. F. (2009) Poleward shifts in breeding bird distributions in New York State. Glob. Change Biol. 15: 1866–1883.

Compiled: 2015    Copyright: 2015   

Recommended Citation:
BirdLife International (2015) The EU Birds and Habitats directives are ensuring protection of climatically suitable bird habitat. Downloaded from on 25/04/2019