We are regularly told by conservation charities that the best way to safeguard wildlife is through designating land as protected areas. But this study shows that national parks and other protected areas have had mixed success in conserving wildlife.

Last week we celebrated World Curlew Day, with many organisations and groups promoting the work they are doing to help this red-listed moorland and marshland bird. A huge amount of effort is going into improving the plight of the Eurasian Curlew, which is both Britain’s largest wader, and both one of our most iconic – and most threatened – species.

Much of the curlew conservation work focuses on creating the right environments in which they can thrive; and with that in mind we thought this study in the journal Nature was of particular interest.

While we are regularly told by conservation charities that the best way to safeguard wildlife is through designating land as protected areas, the global study shows that in fact, national parks and other protected areas have had mixed success in conserving wildlife.

The study used wetland bird data from 1,506 protected areas internationally – which would include the Eurasian Curlew, as part of the Scolopacidae family. It found that protected areas “have a mixed impact on waterbirds.” As the study’s authors point out, “calls to conserve 30% of the Earth’s surface are gathering pace, but we show that protection alone does not guarantee good biodiversity outcomes.”

One of the major points that the study’s authors focus on is the management of these areas. Lead researcher Dr Hannah Wauchope, from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at University of Exeter, told the BBC that: “There seems to be this disconnect between people talking about how much land is protected and whether those areas are actually doing anything positive."

This phrase could have been written almost entirely with the Curlew in mind. While many ground nesting birds are faring badly, the Eurasian Curlew population is on the verge of extinction and is of global conservation concern.

This is despite numerous attempts in the UK to boost their numbers. Perfect curlew habitat has been created in places such as Lake Vyrnwy, and the RSPB have launched their own curlew recovery programme. But even they admit that simply protecting areas which ought to provide good curlew breeding habitats is not enough. The threat to the curlew comes mostly from predation: the ‘scrapes’ that they choose to nest in makes their eggs particularly vulnerable to predation by both mammals and other birds. The one place where curlew are bucking the trend is in the uplands; more specifically in areas where predator control is carried out, such as in moorland areas managed for grouse.

“We are not saying protected areas don’t work,” explained Dr Wauchope. “The key point is that their impacts vary hugely, and the biggest thing this depends on is whether they are managed with species in mind – we can’t just expect protected areas to work without appropriate management.”

This is exactly the viewpoint that we believe would benefit the curlew enormously. It’s not that there aren’t suitable breeding habitats for them – but that habitat alone is not enough for their numbers to surge. Proper management is needed; and this is what conservation needs. Not just targets, but an action plan to improve biodiversity and make sure the species that most need our help, receive our help.

 

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