The dynamic nature and diversity of species’ responses to climate change poses significant difficulties for developing robust, long-term conservation strategies. One key question is whether existing protected area networks will remain effective in a changing climate. To test this, we developed statistical models that link climate to the abundance of internationally important bird populations in northwestern Europe. Spatial climate–abundance models were able to predict 56% of the variation in recent 30-year population trends. Using these models, future climate change resulting in 4.0 °C global warming was projected to cause declines of at least 25% for more than half of the internationally important populations considered. Nonetheless, most EU Special Protection Areas in the UK were projected to retain species in sufficient abundances to maintain their legal status, and generally sites that are important now were projected to be important in the future. The biological and legal resilience of this network of protected areas is derived from the capacity for turnover in the important species at each site as species’ distributions and abundances alter in response to climate. Current protected areas are therefore predicted to remain important for future conservation in a changing climate.

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This project was funded by Defra with the support of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage. We would like to thank all the professional and amateur ornithologists who contributed to the collection of bird data. We also acknowledge the provision of bird data from the UK, Ireland, France and the Netherlands, which included schemes coordinated or contributed to by BirdWatch Ireland, British Trust for Ornithology, Countryside Council for Wales, Environment and Heritage Service for Northern Ireland, Groupement d’Intérêt Scientifique Oiseaux Marins, International Waterbird Census, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Natural England, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Scottish Natural Heritage, SOVON Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Weather data were provided by UKCP09 and E-OBS from the EU-FP6 project ENSEMBLES, and future climate projections were from UKCP09. Other data were provided by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Ordnance Survey and Joint Nature Conservation Committee. We acknowledge input from G. Austin, I. Burfield, N. Burton, C. Campbell, N, Clark, G. Conway, D. Fouracre and S. Wotton.

Author information

Author notes

    • Mark M. Rehfisch

    Present address: APEM Limited, Ravenscroft House, 59-61 Regent Street, Cambridge, CB2 1AB, UK (M.M.R.)

    • Staffan Roos

    Present address: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 2 Lochside View, Edinburgh Park, Edingburgh EH12 9DH, UK (S.R.)


  1. British Trust for Ornithology, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2PU, UK

    • Alison Johnston
    • , Aonghais S. C. P. Cook
    • , Stuart E. Newson
    • , Nancy Ockendon
    • , Mark M. Rehfisch
    • , Chris B. Thaxter
    •  & James W. Pearce-Higgins
  2. Reserves and Protected Areas Department, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL, UK

    • Malcolm Ausden
    •  & Andrew M. Dodd
  3. Conservation Science Department, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL, UK

    • Richard B. Bradbury
  4. DBIOS, Università di Torino, Via Accademia Albertina 13, 10123 Torino, Italy

    • Dan E. Chamberlain
  5. UMR7204 MNHN-CNRS-UPMC, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, CRBPO, CP 51, 55 rue buffon, 75005 Paris, France

    • Frédéric Jiguet
  6. Department of Biology, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD, UK

    • Chris D. Thomas
  7. British Trust for Ornithology Scotland, School of Natural Sciences, Cottrell Building, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK

    • Staffan Roos
  8. Natural England, Touthill Close, Unex House, Bourges Boulevard, Peterborough PE1 1NG, UK

    • Andy Brown
  9. Natural England, Eastbrook, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 8DR, UK

    • Humphrey Q. P. Crick
  10. Scottish Natural Heritage, Great Glen House, Leachkin Road, Inverness IV3 8NW, UK

    • Andrew Douse
  11. Natural Resources Wales/Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru, Welsh Assembly Government Building, Rhodfa Padarn, Llanbadarn Fawr, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion SY23 3UR, UK

    • Rob A. McCall
  12. DEFRA, Zone 1/05B, Temple Quay House, Temple Quay, Bristol BS1 6EB, UK

    • Helen Pontier
  13. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Monkstone House, City Road, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire PE1 1JY, UK

    • David A. Stroud
  14. GISOM, c/o Bretagne Vivante—SEPNB, 186 rue Anatole France, BP 63121, F-29231 BREST cedex 3, France

    • Bernard Cadiou
  15. BirdWatch Ireland, 20D Bullford Business Campus, Kilcoole, County Wicklow, Ireland

    • Olivia Crowe
  16. Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, Fonderies Royales—BP 90263, 17305 Rochefort cedex, France

    • Bernard Deceuninck
  17. Sovon Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology, Toernooiveld 1, 6525 ED Nijmegen, The Netherlands

    • Menno Hornman


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A.J., J.W.P-H. and C.D.T. wrote the article, with significant input from M.A., A.M.D., R.B.B., D.E.C. andF.J., and all other authors contributed to the manuscript. A.B., H.P., M.M.R., D.E.C., A.J., J.P.H., A.M.D., M.A., F.J., R.B.B. and C.D.T. designed the study. A.J., N.O., C.B.T. and S.E.N. ran models and analysed results. A.J., S.R., B.C., A.S.C.P.C., O.C., B.D., M.H., F.J. and N.O. collated and prepared data. D.A.S., R.A.M., A.D., A.B., H.Q.P.C. and H.P. provided scientific advice throughout the project.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Alison Johnston or Mark M. Rehfisch or Staffan Roos.

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