Striking the right balance between coastal bird conservation and the needs of society
Submitting InstitutionBournemouth University
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management
Biological Sciences: Ecology
Summary of the impact
Human activities and manmade structures can negatively affect bird
populations, but previously there was no robust method to quantify the
impact. Bournemouth University (BU) researchers have applied extensive
behavioural research to develop unique computer modelling techniques to
predict how human activities affect coastal birds. These models have
provided the evidence-base for coastal management schemes in 35 sites in
Europe and one in Australia and include shellfisheries, wind farms,
bridges, tidal barrages and nuclear power stations. In England
specifically the technique has been applied to 812 km2 (29%) of
protected coastal habitat.
With no other alternatives to quantify the risk to birds, this research
is truly innovative. The method gives coastal managers the evidence to
make informed decisions that weigh up the cost to birds with the benefits
to society. This avoids the precautionary principle of banning human
activities that are not in fact harming the birds.
Human activity, such as port development, dredging, tidal barrages, wind
farms, recreation and fishing can lead to loss of habitat and
biodiversity. There is a long history of environmental conflicts between
the needs of the birds and human activity, which has been fuelled by a
lack of evidence of how the changes affect the birds. Coastal managers
need to balance the requirements of the birds with those of society and to
do this they need evidence. This has not been available until now, but BU
researchers Stillman (2007 to present) and Clarke (2007 to present)
identified this knowledge gap and created a system to provide timely
advice on predicted impacts before change happens.
The method combines behavioural research within a computer model. The
results quantify the effect of environmental change on the coastal birds,
providing the evidence for an informed debate between different interest
groups. BU is in a unique position to provide this advice as no comparable
approaches are available (P1).
The first component of the process has been extensive behavioural
research into how individual species, such as waders and wildfowl, respond
to environmental change (P1). This includes how they interact with their
competitors, prey, humans and the environment. The BU research has made
significant advances in ecologists' understanding of how food supply,
competitors and disturbance from humans can affect the rates at which
birds consume their food. This has allowed BU researchers to build up
extensive knowledge of how real birds respond to changes within their
The second component is the use of applied research to predict the effect
of environmental change within a site. Information on the site's
environment and the number and species is fed into a computer model,
MORPH, programmed by BU researchers (P2) to predict how the birds will
respond to a certain change. MORPH is based on the principal that animals
will attempt to maximise their chances of survival and reproduction,
regardless of how much the environment changes. The model predictions are
compared with real conditions to confirm accuracy (P1). By integrating the
responses of individual birds, the model can predict the population
response to the change. These responses relate to bird behaviour and
foraging success, and their interaction with competitors, prey, potential
predators and the environment. The output is a prediction of the change in
mortality rate and distribution of the population in response to the
For example, by inputting accurate data about the food supply available
in an environment, the user can see how the model birds would feed. The
user can then reduce the amount of food available and see how many birds
would die. A real-life application here would be in setting shellfishing
quotas. The user could vary the food supply in the computer model to find
a level that fulfils the needs of the fisherman with minimal impact on the
Grant G1 brought together coastal stakeholders (Natural England, Scottish
Natural Heritage, Countryside Council for Wales, Shellfishery regulators,
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Associated British Ports) to
transfer understanding of the approach and make the outputs of the
research more accessible. This took place through a series of workshops
and the development of a simplified model (P3). Grant G2 funded the
international dissemination of the research and its application to
conservationists and government bodies in France, Spain, Portugal and the
Application of the model takes the form of commissioned research
addressing coastal bird conservation issues or as responses to
case-specific or general policy enquiries. BU's role is evidenced through
the £75,000 to £100,000 funding per year to apply the approach since 2008,
commissioned research reports and letters of support from the coastal
managers or policy makers (see section 5). The computer model predicts the
amount of environmental change beyond which coastal birds are adversely
affected (P4 and P5). Predicting how environmental change affects coastal
birds can reliably inform conservation management and policy.
References to the research
P1. Stillman, R.A. and Goss-Custard, J.D. (2010) Individual-based
ecology of coastal birds. Biological Reviews, 85(3), 413-434.
P2. Stillman, R.A. (2008) MORPH - An individual-based model to
predict the effect of environmental change on animal populations. Ecological
Modelling, 216(3-4), 265-276. DOI:10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2008.04.014.
P3. West, A.D., Stillman, R.A., Drewitt, A., Frost, N.J., Mander,
M., Miles, C., Langston, R., Sanderson, W.G. and Willis, J. (2011)
WaderMORPH: A user-friendly model to advise shorebird policy and
management. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 2(1), 95-98.
P4. Durell, S.E.A. Le V. dit, Stillman, R.A., Triplet, P.,
Desprez, M., Fagot, C., Loquet, N., Sueur, F. and Goss-Custard, J.D.
(2008) Using an individual-based model to inform estuary management in the
Baie de Somme, France. Oryx, 42, 265-277. DOI:
P5. Stillman, R.A., Moore, J.J., Woolmer, A.P., Murphy, M.D,
Walker, P., Vanstaen, K.R., Palmer, D. and Sanderson, W.G. (2010)
Assessing waterbird bird conservation objectives: An example for the Burry
Inlet, UK. Biological Conservation, 143(11), 2617-2630.
G1. 2008-2010. Natural Environment Research Council. Building a
user-friendly model to assist wildlife policy and management. Project
code: NE/F009305/1. PI: Richard Stillman. £153,000.
G2. 2010-2011. Higher Education Innovation Fund. Coastal Bird
Enterprise. PI: Richard Stillman. £20,362.
Details of the impact
BU's research has had a significant impact on protecting biodiversity,
with fewer birds dying through loss of food and habitat. It also benefits
society by identifying human activities that do not negatively impact on
the birds. Historically, the precautionary principle would be applied in
the absence of evidence, assuming any activity would adversely affect the
birds. This has led to banning human activities that would not affect
wildlife. This wastes conservation resources in opposing non-harming
activities instead of focusing efforts on damaging ones, and also
restricts human activities and development even if they would be
The computer modelling technique has been applied to 35 sites in Europe
and one in Australia. In England specifically it has been used on 812 km2
(29%) of Special Protection Areas identified by DEFRA (Humber Estuary,
Wash, North Norfolk, Chichester Harbour, Southampton Water, Poole Harbour,
Exe Estuary, Severn Estuary, Dee Estuary, Morecambe Bay and Solway Firth).
Since 2007, the computer modelling technique has been used in the
following conservation scenarios:
Barrages and bridges
Evidence was provided to the UK Government on the impact of proposed
tidal power barrages within the Severn Estuary in 2010 contributed to the
decision to abandon funding of the scheme on environmental grounds (R1).
Evidence was provided to the Danish government in 2011 on the effect a
proposed bridge over the Fehmarn Belt between Germany and Denmark would
have on sea ducks.
Evidence was provided to regulatory bodies and conservation and
industrial organisations on the potential impact of human disturbance
resulting from increased housing in the Solent region (2010-present; R2
Evidence was provided for the assessment of the impact of harbour
development on a rare wading bird, the Pied Oystercatcher, in Tasmania
Sea level rise
Evidence has shown the impact of sea level rise on bird populations in
Poole Harbour (2008), Exe Estuary (2008) and Baie de Somme, France
(2008-present). Manager of the Nature Syndicat Mixte Nature Reserve in
France said: "The results of the model gave the opportunity and the
arguments to change the opening of the cockle fishing season. This now
starts one month earlier than before, in order to increase the cockle
The UK nuclear power industry was advised on the impact warm-water
outflow from a proposed nuclear power station on Bridgwater Bay would have
on birds and their food source (2010, R6).
The BU model is applied to annual quotas in Baie de Somme, France
(2008-present; R5) and all shellfishing sites in Wales. This is evidenced
in the minutes from the Welsh Government meeting, `Bird Food Model', which
took place in Aberystwyth on 3 October 2012 (R7).
In England, evidence of the effects of shellfishing has been provided to
coastal managers of 27% (881 km2) of coastal and brackish
waters classified as shellfish surface water by DEFRA. This includes
Solway Firth (2008; R8); Morecambe Bay (2010; R9) and The Wash
(2007-present; R9). Referring to a protected wading bird, Senior Advisor
for Natural England said: "The modelling work has determined the amount of
shellfish food required to ensure minimum mortality in the over-wintering
oystercatcher population" (R9).
Using financial information from the Marine Management Organisation, the
English shellfisheries regulated by BU research and modelling, produce
between 4,401 and 10,394 tonnes of shellfish per annum (2010 figures) with
an estimated annual value of between £8.35 million and £17.43 million.
This constitutes 53% of the total income generated by shellfishing in
The Wash specifically produces between 1,100 and 2,298 tonnes of
shellfish per annum (2010 figures) with an estimated annual value between
£1.7 and £4.38 million. This constitutes 13% of the total annual income
generated by shellfish farming in English waters. A precautionary approach
of banning shellfishing in the Wash would result in an annual loss of
income of between £1.7 and £4.38 million. In contrast, lack of evidence
may mean that use of the coast is unregulated. The Wash shellfishery was
unregulated during the 1990s and extensive shellfishing reduced the food
supplies of a protected species, the oystercatcher, leading to up to 25%
overwinter mortality of these birds (5,000 birds), whereas only 1-2% died
when overfishing did not occur. BU's modelling technique has allowed
shellfishing quotas to be set to maximise economic potential, while
ensuring adequate food supply is left for the birds.
The environmental conflicts that BU's models are designed to address
occur world-wide and are not restricted to coastal birds. The modelling
technique allows coastal managers to weigh up the environmental damage of
human activity and, where this is minimal and the benefit to society is
significant, proceed with the activity. The evidence quells environmental
arguments and allows informed decision making that strikes a balance
between protecting biodiversity and doing what is right for society.
Since 2010 these models have been used by 21 researchers (PhD students,
post-doctorate researchers and academics) around the world to further
conservation research, including 12 in the UK, 7 elsewhere in Europe, 1 in
the USA and 1 in South Korea. This demonstrates the increasing reach of
Sources to corroborate the impact
R1. Stillman, R. A. (2010) Severn Tidal Power - SEA Topic
Paper. Waterbirds. Annex 3 - Waterbird Individual-based Modelling.
Report to Department of Energy and Climate Change, p.59.
R2. Letter explaining how BU models have been used to assess the
impact of disturbance on birds throughout the Solent region, 31 May 2013
2012 (available on request).
R3. Stillman, R.A., West, A.D., Clarke, R.T. and Liley, D. (2012)
Solent Disturbance and Mitigation Project Phase II: Predicting the
impact of human disturbance on overwintering birds in the Solent.
Report to the Solent Forum, p.119.
R4. Atkinson, P.W. and Stillman, R.A. (2008) Carrying capacity
modelling for the Pied Oystercatcher at Lauderdale and surrounding sites.
Lauderdale Quay Proposal. British Trust for Ornithology Research
Report, No.515, p.55.
R5. Letter from Syndicat Mixte Baie de Somme explaining how BU's
research has been used in the management of the Baie de Somme, France, for
coastal birds, 11 September 2012 (available on request).
R6. Garcia, C., Stillman, R.A., Forster, R. and Bremner, J. (2011)
Investigations of the links between intertidal macrofauna and their
avian predators in Bridgwater Bay with an individual-based model.
Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science Report TR161,
R7. Minutes from Welsh Government meeting, `Bird Food Model',
3.30pm, 3 October 2012, Aberystwyth.
R8. Stillman, R.A. (2008) Predicted effect of shellfishing on
the oystercatcher and knot populations of the Solway Firth. Final
report. Solway Shellfish Management Association, p.23.
R9. Letter from Natural England explaining how the BU models have
been used to set shellfishing quotas in the Wash and North Norfolk,
Morecambe Bay and Ribble Estuary Special Protection Areas, 25 October 2013
(available on request).