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Pro­tected wildlife areas are ‘wel­come mats’ for UK’s bird newcomers

pub­lished 14 April 2013 | mod­i­fied 05 April 2014

Spoonbill in UKA new study by sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­sity of York and the Royal Soci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of Birds (RSPB) shows that bird species which have colonised the UK in recent decades breed ini­tially almost exclu­sively in nature reserves and other areas spe­cially pro­tected for wildlife. First author, Jonathan Hiley, a PhD stu­dent in the Depart­ment of Biol­ogy at York, said: “Nature reserves pro­vide eco­log­i­cal wel­come mats for new arrivals.”

Pub­lished online on 10 April in the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Soci­ety B. , the study shows that, of the 20 wet­land bird species that bred for the first time in the UK since 1960, 18 bred first in these pro­tected areas. Pro­tected areas were cru­cial as the pop­u­la­tion estab­lished and grew. Once estab­lished in reserves, the birds began to spread out into other loca­tions as they expanded their ranges across the coun­try.

For some warmth-​loving south­ern species, such as Lit­tle Egrets and Cetti’s War­blers, these arrivals appear to be in response to a chang­ing cli­mate. For oth­ers, such as Com­mon Cranes, they are a response to other fac­tors, such as recov­ery from his­tor­i­cal loss of habi­tat or per­se­cu­tion.

…Pro­tected areas are help­ing to give birds and other species a fight­ing chance of mov­ing into new regions where they can breed successfully
Pro­fes­sor Chris Thomas, co-​author, Depart­ment of Biol­ogy at York »

The main­stay of tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tion has been to estab­lish pro­tected areas to pro­vide refuges against the loss of habi­tats and other threats in the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. Iron­i­cally, this study comes at a time when the value of pro­tected areas is being ques­tioned in some quar­ters because cli­mate change and other fac­tors cause ani­mals to move away from their tra­di­tional haunts and into new regions.

How­ever, species which are shift­ing their ranges also need high qual­ity places to move into. For birds, at least, it appears that the cur­rent net­work of pro­tected areas in the UK is pro­vid­ing such places.

This study shows that the hugely impor­tant role that nature reserves and pro­tected areas play will con­tinue undi­min­ished in the future,” accord­ing to Jonathan Hiley.

Co-​author Chris Thomas, of the Depart­ment of Biol­ogy at York, added: “This gives some cause for opti­mism in the midst of con­cern that cli­mate change and other fac­tors will imperil many species. Pro­tected areas are help­ing to give birds and other species a fight­ing chance of mov­ing into new regions where they can breed suc­cess­fully.”

Co-​author Dr Richard Brad­bury, of the RSPB, said: “Many species have only been able to colonise, or re-​colonise, the UK as a result of a tremen­dous recent effort by con­ser­va­tion­ists to recre­ate and man­age large wet­land areas. This action has been absolutely vital in cre­at­ing starter homes that enable these species to set­tle and flour­ish.

“But while it is great news that the hard work of con­ser­va­tion­ists is ben­e­fit­ting these new arrivals, we must not for­get that the changes in our cli­mate which brought many of them may prove cat­a­strophic for wildlife in the long term if it con­tin­ues unabated.”

Co-​author Mark Holling, Sec­re­tary of the Rare Breed­ing Birds Panel, added: “Data on the rarest breed­ing birds in the UK, col­lected over the last 40 years, sup­ported the find­ings of the research. As birds colonise the UK, or move to new parts of the coun­try, the major­ity of them move ini­tially to areas pro­tected for nature, under­lin­ing their impor­tance for con­ser­va­tion of rare species.”

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of York press release, 10.04.2013)

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