Extensive conservation area network mitigates effects of climate change on bird communities

In central Finland, the protection of 13% of all land area within a 100-kilometre radius was enough to prevent the reduction of northern bird species caused by global warming. In southern Finland, the current network of protected areas may not be sufficiently dense to act as a buffer against the effects of climate change on birds.

A study conducted on Finnish conservation areas surveyed between 1980 and 2015 indicates that the larger the share of surrounding land area under protection, the less the bird communities in northern and central Finland changed.

“The findings prove that in a comprehensive network of protected areas, bird communities are better able to resist the effects of climate change. In other words, the harmful effects of climate change, particularly on northern bird species, can be prevented by increasing protected areas,” says postdoctoral researcher Petteri Lehikoinen from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki.

In central Finland, the protection of 13% of all land area within a 100-kilometre radius was enough to prevent the reduction of northern bird species and the spread of southern species. In northern Finland, the corresponding share was 45% of the land area.

“Nearly half of all land area sounds like a lot, but in Finland large conservation areas are concentrated in the northern parts of the country where this figure is achieved in places,” Lehikoinen notes.

“In central Finland, the share of land area needed to stop the change is clearly less than international goals. Under the EU’s new biodiversity strategy, the share of protected land area must be 30%. In Finland, we are less than halfway toward achieving this objective.”

Protected area network in southern Finland too scattered

In southern Finland, the study did not identify a similar link between the extent of the protected area network and the tolerance to change of bird communities.

“The protected area coverage in southern Finland is less than 5% of total land area, a very low figure compared to central and northern Finland. The southern network of protected areas may be too sparse in Finland to be able to help bird communities resist the effects of climate change,” Lehikoinen says.

Bird observations unique to Finland and volunteers boost science

The study relied on bird pair counts extending over several decades carried out by bird hobbyists throughout Finland.

The long-term observational time series from both within and outside protected areas have proven to be of primary importance when assessing the environmental effects of climate change. Similar monitoring datasets that make it possible to investigate the significance of conservation efforts are extremely rare elsewhere in the world.

The study was conducted collaboratively by the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences and the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus as well as Parks & Wildlife Finland, an organisation under Metsähallitus, Finnish Environment Institute Syke and the Nature and Game Management Trust Finland. The bird monitoring was coordinated by Luomus, Parks & Wildlife Finland and BirdLife Finland.


Petteri Lehikoinen, Maria Tiusanen, Andrea Santangeli, Ari Rajasärkkä, Kim Jaatinen, Jari Valkama, Raimo Virkkala, Aleksi Lehikoinen. Increasing protected area coverage mitigates climate-driven community changes. Biological Conservation, vol. 253, January 2021, 108892. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108892

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Conservation areas help birdlife adapt to climate change


Helsinki Lab of Ornithology

Species relocate due to global warming

One of the best-known consequences of global warming is the relocation of the area of distribution of different species closer to colder areas, such as the polar regions and mountaintops. At the same time, changes in land use are undermining and fragmenting natural habitats.

If species are unable to adapt or relocate, their risk of extinction grows. Northern species in particular are in danger, as global warming has been at its most intense in the boreal and arctic zones.

“Northern species, such as willow grouse and brambling, have declined and moved further north at a faster pace compared to southern species. However, their opportunities for relocating even further up north are limited by the Arctic Ocean. In fact, global warming is causing substantial changes among bird communities, with northern species in decline and southern ones gaining in abundance,” says postdoctoral researcher Petteri Lehikoinen from the University of Helsinki.