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The distribution of breeding birds around upland wind farms

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Summary

1. There is an urgent need for climate change mitigation, of which the promotion of renewable energy, such as from wind farms, is an important component. Birds are expected to be sensitive to wind farms, although effects vary between sites and species. Using data from 12 upland wind farms in the UK, we examine whether there is reduced occurrence of breeding birds close to wind farm infrastructure (turbines, access tracks and overhead transmission lines). To our knowledge, this is the first such multi-site comparison examining wind farm effects on the distribution of breeding birds.

2. Bird distribution was assessed using regular surveys during the breeding season. We took a conservative analytical approach, with bird occurrence modelled as a function of habitat, before examining the additional effects of wind farm proximity.

3. Seven of the 12 species studied exhibited significantly lower frequencies of occurrence close to the turbines, after accounting for habitat variation, with equivocal evidence of turbine avoidance in a further two. No species were more likely to occur close to the turbines. There was no evidence that raptors altered flight height close to turbines. Turbines were avoided more strongly than tracks, whilst there was no evidence for consistent avoidance of overhead transmission lines connecting sites to the national grid.

4. Levels of turbine avoidance suggest breeding bird densities may be reduced within a 500-m buffer of the turbines by 15–53%, with buzzard Buteo buteo, hen harrier Circus cyaneus, golden plover Pluvialis apricaria, snipe Gallinago gallinago, curlew Numenius arquata and wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe most affected.

5. Despite being a correlative study, with potential for Type I error, we failed to detect any systematic bias in our likelihood of detecting significant effects.

6.Synthesis and applications. This provides the first evidence for consistent and significant effects of wind farms on a range of upland bird species, emphasizing the need for a strategic approach to ensure such development avoids areas with high densities of potentially vulnerable species. Our results reduce the uncertainty over the magnitude of such effects, and will improve future environmental impacts assessments.
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Keywords: climate change; collision; displacement; environmental impact assessment; renewable energy; upland birds

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: RSPB, Dunedin House, 25 Ravelston Terrace, Edinburgh EH4 3TP, UK 2: RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL, UK 3: Scottish Natural Heritage, Beta Centre, Innovation Park, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4NF, UK

Publication date: December 1, 2009

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