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News article23 August 2022Directorate-General for Environment

Natura 2000 sites with management plans are most effective at helping waterbirds adapt to climate change

Issue 583: A major role of protected areas is to provide species with opportunities to shift their distribution in response to climate change.

Natura 2000 sites with management plans are most effective at helping waterbirds adapt to climate change
Photo by: Sumruay Rattanataipob, Shutterstock

This study looks at key characteristics of Natura 2000 sites to assess their influence on the speed at which water-bird communities react to rising temperatures. The researchers report that sites designated under the EU’s Birds Directive, and with a management plan, are most effective at facilitating climate change adaptation.

As climate change alters global environmental conditions, helping species to adapt to these changes is an emerging conservation priority. One of the roles of protected areas is to assist species in tracking suitable habitats over changing landscapes. The Natura 2000 network, which covers over 18% of the EU’s land area and more than 8% of marine territory, is a key element of EU conservation policy, bringing together protected areas listed under the Birds1 and the Habitats2 Directives. This study assessed the factors that influenced these sites’ effectiveness in enabling changes in the distribution of non-breeding (overwintering) water-birds in response to climate change.

The researchers considered 3 018 Natura 2000 sites, for which the International Waterbird Census had suitable records of overwintering birds, over the period 1993-2017. They used a data set of 38 559 surveys in 26 EU Member States, covering 97 species and nearly 200 million individual records.

They assessed sites based on four characteristics: whether they were designated under the Birds or Habitats Directive, whether they had a management plan (according to the Natura 2000 database), whether they were assigned before or after 2000, and whether they received funding from the EU’s LIFE programme.

The researchers calculated annual winter temperatures for each site based on monthly averages for November, December and January according to the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. From each water-bird survey they also calculated a Community Temperature Index, based on the prevailing temperature across the winter range of each recorded species, as an indicator of the preferred temperature for that water-bird community. They determined the site’s success in facilitating range adaptation by comparing the rate of change of average temperature to the rate of change of the Community Temperature Index.

Designation under the Birds Directive was the only characteristic that correlated with improved water-bird community adaptation to climate change across all sites, according to the researchers. They also report that within these sites targeted at bird conservation, those with a management plan performed better than those without. They note that the study does not analyse the level of implementation of management plans. Date of designation did not exert a significant influence, they say, while sites receiving LIFE funding showed a slightly reduced response to temperature change. They suggest that this could be due to species-specific funding that promotes species persistence rather than range adaptation, or conversely because such funding was predominantly allocated to sites facing high levels of threat and hence were already performing poorly.

The researchers say that even in sites designated under the Birds Directive, temperature increases occurred at 2–4 times the speed of water-bird community adaptation. They acknowledge that community composition may also be affected by other factors, such as precipitation and water level. They highlight the importance of preparing management plans, as encouraged in both the Birds and Habitats Directives, for achieving conservation objectives. They suggest that further research should consider the impact of the degree of implementation of these plans. They argue that, while Natura 2000 is a highly valuable network of protected areas, efforts to evaluate outcomes could be enhanced by the standardised collection of data on conservation measures at individual sites.


  1. Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds
  2. Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora


Gaget, E., Johnston, A., Pavón-Jordán, D., Lehikoinen, A. S., Sandercock, B. K., Soultan, A., Božič, L., Clausen, P., Devos, K., Domsa, C., Encarnação, V., Faragó, S., Fitzgerald, N., Frost, T., Gaudard, C., Gosztonyi, L., Haas, F., Hornman, M., Langendoen, T., Ieronymidou, C., Luigujõe, L., Meissner, W., Mikuska, T., Molina, B., Musilová, Z., Paquet, J.-Y., Petkov, N., Portolou, D., Ridzoň, J., Sniauksta, L., Stīpniece, A., Teufelbauer, N., Wahl, J., Zenatello, M. and Brommer, J. E. (2022) Protected area characteristics that help waterbirds respond to climate warming. Conservation Biology 1–9. Available from:

To cite this article/service:

Science for Environment Policy”: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by SCU, The University of the West of England, Bristol.

Notes on content:

The contents and views included in Science for Environment Policy are based on independent, peer reviewed research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission. Please note that this article is a summary of only one study. Other studies may come to other conclusions.


Publication date
23 August 2022
Directorate-General for Environment

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