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Protected areas to tackle biodiversity loss now, and for the future

Protected areas to tackle biodiversity loss now, and for the future

  • Biodiversity
  • 2022-2027
Sustainable Development icon: climate action
Sustainable Development icon: life below water
Sustainable Development icon: life on land


The High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, an intergovernmental group of 60 countries, champions a global deal for nature and people and has the central goal of protecting at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030. The 30x30 target aims to halt the accelerating loss of species, address the biodiversity crisis, and protect vital ecosystems. Scotland is committed to this target and has 17% of its land currently protected and 37% of its seas in Marine Protected areas (MPAs). However, in both environments, this does not mean that damaging activities have ceased.

Climate change is a threat to biodiversity. The magnitude of that threat depends in part on the extent to which a species’ climatic niche will shrink or shift spatially. The magnitude of the threat of climate change is measured in bioclimatic models with a granularity of 1 kilometre. However, many species often respond to microclimates at much smaller scales, down to metres, or even centimetres. Therefore, certain landscapes may offer refugia – local microclimates that remain suitable even as the large-scale climate continues to change – allowing the chance for individual species to survive climate change. Such refugia can be especially important for dispersal-limited species since they provide continued niche availability at local scales.

The choice of which areas of land and sea to prioritise for conservation protection is complex. Setting targets for the coverage of protected areas is only useful if we know what type of protection should be implemented and where, and whether this protection is successful. We must select sites which maximise the effectiveness of biodiversity protection and deliver the most benefits. Understanding the factors which influence the distribution of species across a landscape is an essential step to identifying optimal locations for protection.

Protection areas need to be positioned within the wider landscape/seascape to provide maximum connectivity to enable species movement and to provide a buffer from the drivers of biodiversity loss occurring outside protected areas. In addition, the protected area network needs to be flexible with respect to climate change. Specifically, it needs to cope with changes in species distributions due to a changing climate while at the same time providing refugia for species with limited dispersal abilities.

We need to know how to best measure the condition or success of a protected area. Current monitoring of protected areas is based on the aim of conserving the “status quo” of the biodiversity when the site was first protected. This approach ignores the ecologically dynamic nature of species and ecosystems. We urgently need to develop a method to monitor ‘success’ that can cope with changes in species distributions due to a changing climate while at the same time ensuring that refugia are maintained for species with limited dispersal abilities.


  • How can NatureScot and the Scottish Government extend the range of protected areas coverage to 30% by 2030? How should we approach ‘favourable conditions' in a rapidly changing climate when we are unable to replicate the conditions that gave rise to particular states of nature in the past?
  • How can we co-develop approaches to habitat connectivity that meet the needs of all stakeholders and will be resilient in the face of pressures including climate change?
  • How can we identify and evaluate more flexible approaches to complement the existing suite of protected areas, including ‘condition’ in a changing climate?


The overall objective of this project is to improve our understanding of how to design effectively protected area networks against a backdrop of rapid environmental change and how to measure the success of protected areas.


A Seascape approach for biodiversity protection

We are focusing on developing a novel approach to predictive distribution modelling of fish species, combining multiple spatial scales and accounting for patchy habitat mosaics. This work will provide the practical knowledge required to manage and conserve species in Scotland’s seascapes, improve our conceptual understanding of fish distributions, and provide the essential knowledge required to infer habitat connectivity. We are providing critical information that we currently lack, to help identify how to place and protect our MPAs.


Genetic diversity and Protected Areas

We are exploring the importance of our protected areas for conserving genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is crucially important in allowing species to adapt to changing climatic conditions and other stressors. We are utilising a unique experimental platform, focused on Scots Pine as Scotland’s most culturally important tree species. The platform contains genetic material representing twenty-one of Scotland’s native pinewoods and will allow us to test options for utilising the natural genetic variation within a tree species to keep pace with predicted changes in climate.


Identifying and providing climate refugia in protected areas

We are reviewing the scientific literature on microclimates, and this will be combined with field sampling (microclimatic measurements) and GIS analysis of example protected areas that range from simple to more complex. We are creating a specific case study to model climate refugia for Scottish temperate rainforests (including Atlantic oak woods).


Resilience and measuring success

We need to know if protected areas are delivering on their objective of conserving biodiversity, and what is the most appropriate method by which to measure their success. We are using two unique databases of long-term vegetation monitoring plots across Scotland to assess if the rate of vegetation change differs between plots inside and outside protected areas, or if wider landscape scale pressures, not prevented by protected areas are the major drivers of biodiversity loss. We are then comparing approaches between marine and terrestrial protected areas with respect to designation, monitoring and meeting the 30 x 30 target.

Overall, this project is helping to improve the planning and implementation of protected areas on land and at sea and a better understanding of how to monitor their effectiveness.

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