Europe and Central Asia
26 Jan 2015

EU protected areas help wildlife adapt to climate change, new research shows

Smew © Graham Catley
By Communications

Global warming has various impacts on wildlife, one being the change in geographical distribution of species populations. New research [1] compiled by scientists from 16 countries, including BirdLife experts, shows that EU Special Protection Areas (SPAs) [2] facilitate distribution changes.

The study, published in the scientific journal “Diversity and Distributions”, is focused on the Smew [3], a rare and protected duck species in Europe, whose wintering population has redistributed north-eastwards in Europe due to milder winter conditions in the last 25 years.

According to one of the authors, Diego Pavón Jordán from the Finnish Museum of Natural History: “Currently, one third of the total population winters in North-Eastern Europe, compared to 6% two decades ago. Furthermore, population growth rate in this region was also twice as fast inside EU Birds Directive’s SPAs compared to those outside over the last 25 years”, says.

The findings confirm that Special Protection Areas and well-designed protected area networks, by safeguarding high quality habitat as species adopt new distributions, help mitigate the effects of climate change on biodiversity. The results are based on data from the International Waterbird Census from 16 countries since 1990 [4].

The results, however, also highlight severe gaps in the EU Special protection Area network, especially in northern parts of Europe. Many countries designated their SPAs more than 20 years ago, when no account was taken to accommodate such rapid environmental changes as we see now. More than eight out of ten Smew wintering in Latvia and Sweden do so in currently unprotected areas, and in Finland nearly all individuals winter outside the Special Protection Areas network.

A finding that led another co-author, Aleksi Lehikoinen from the Finnish Museum of Natural History to conclude with a recommendation: “As climate-driven distribution shifts will continue in the future, there is urgent need to update national Special Protection Area networks not only for the Smew but also for many other species, in order to maintain the effectiveness of these networks and species conservation status”,

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

Maintaining a comprehensive network of protected areas throughout the entire range is the ultimate goal of the EU Birds Directive and the Natura2000 network [5], but more efforts and resources should still be allocated in conservation to achieve such a goal.



1. “Climate-driven changes in winter abundance of a migratory waterbird in relation to EU protected areas”. The full publication is available at:

2. The protected areas studied are Special Protection Areas (SPAs) legally designated by EU Member States under Article 4 of the EU Directive on the Conservation of wild birds. Each Member State has an obligation to designate “the most suitable” areas for species listed under Annex I of the Directive (such as Smew).  Within SPAs, Member States have legal obligation to manage habitats to maintain the favourable status of the species for which they have been designated.  This includes the control of development and other factors which may have negative impacts on the relevant species.

3. Smew (Mergellus albellus) is a small black and white diving duck which breed in northern areas of Scandinavia and across northern Eurasian.  Within the EU they breed only within Sweden and Finland.  In the non-breeding season they migrate south and west to overwinter in freshwater wetlands and shallow coastal areas.

4. The study was funded by the Kone Foundation (Finland), the Academy of Finland, This project was supported by the NordForsk Top Research Initiative Nordic Waterbirds and Climate Network (NOWAC) and Danish Nature Agency.

5. Special Protection Areas form part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network – a European network.  As at December 2013, there were 27,308 Natura2000 sites which include 5,491 SPAs.  Further information is at


Contact information:

Researcher Diego Pavón Jordán, Finnish Museum of Natural History, +358445061210,

Academy Research Fellow Aleksi Lehikoinen, Finnish Museum of Natural History, +358451375732,

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.