Benefits of protected area networks for breeding bird populations and communities

Lapwing flock by Allan Drewitt

Author(s): Sanderson, F.J., Wilson, J.D., Franks, S.E. & Buchanan, G.M.

Published: December 2022  

Journal: Animal Conservation

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1111/acv.12832

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The European Union’s Natura 2000 network is the largest continent-wide effort to conserve biodiversity through a protected area network. The Natura 2000 sites are designated across the EU under either the Birds Directive or the Habitats Directive, based on objective assessment of a site’s importance for species (Special Protection Areas – SPAs) or habitats (Special Areas of Conservation Concern – SACs). Following the UK’s departure from the European Union, these sites are now covered under domestic legislation. They enable the UK to meet its international obligations for biodiversity conservation through protected area coverage. But how effective are these sites, and are they more effective than other forms of site protection?

While there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that protected areas are effective at protecting natural habitats, their benefits for birds and other species have been less well-studied. This study uses data from the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to explore the effectiveness of the Natura 2000 protected areas for UK bird species of conservation concern (Red and Amber-Listed). In addition, the study also examines the effectiveness of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which receive a lower degree of legislative protection than SPAs or SACs.

The authors used BBS data from two periods, the first covering 1995–1999 (before the majority of Natura 2000 sites were designated), and the second from 2011–2015 (immediately prior to the UK’s departure from the European Union). This approach enabled the authors to test the influence of protected areas on bird populations, revealing that the abundance of birds of conservation concern was higher on BBS squares that were within Natura 2000 sites, and on squares with a greater proportion of Natura 2000 coverage within 5 km. Interestingly, the abundance of birds of conservation concern was not higher on BBS squares with a greater proportion of SSSI-only coverage, though it was positively related to proportion of SSSI coverage in the surrounding 5 km.

These results demonstrate that the abundance of birds of conservation concern increases with protected area coverage, both within the survey square itself and in the surrounding area. This suggests that there is a ‘spillover effect’, in which protected sites may benefit birds in the surrounding area. The effect was greater for SPAs and SACs than for SSSIs. The study highlights both the value and benefits of this high level of legislative protection upon which the UK continues to rely to meet a number of its international commitments for nature.

Protected sites will always be a key tool for securing the future of birds and wider biodiversity in the UK, so it is vital that we understand where and how this protection works best. This study also demonstrates the critical role BBS data play in enabling such assessments to be carried out.


Protected areas are a cornerstone of international conservation. The EU Natura 2000 network is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world, but its impact on biodiversity at the landscape scale is largely unknown. Here we use data from Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) survey squares across Britain to test whether species abundance and population trends and levels of bird community specialisation are correlated with protected area coverage of BBS survey squares or 5-km buffers around BBS squares. We compared area coverage by Natura 2000 protection and by the less strict protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest protection alone. The abundance of birds of higher conservation concern and an index of community specialisation were positively correlated with coverage by Natura 2000 within survey squares or in a 5-km buffer around squares. Population trends of species of higher conservation concern were positively correlated with the coverage of squares by Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the coverage of Natura 2000 within a 5-km buffer around squares. The results suggest that Natura 2000 protection has positive conservation benefits for birds of higher conservation concern and community specialisation, with evidence of additionality over Sites of Special Scientific Interest. This highlights the importance of protected areas, especially those with strictest protection, for maintaining biodiversity. Post Brexit, the UK should adopt legislation that results in the maintenance and strengthening of the current protected area network, as enforcing protection at a level of that provided by the Nature Directives is essential. As currently around half of Natura 2000 sites are not in favourable condition, even greater conservation benefits might be accrued if protected area management were improved.


We are indebted to all the volunteers who were responsible for collecting BBS data. We are grateful to Kate Jennings, Alistair Taylor and Isobel Mercer for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and to the referees, associate editor and editor whose comments greatly improved the text.
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