New research published today highlights the areas in Europe and North Africa where the construction of wind turbines or power lines is likely to increase the risk of death for migrating birds.

The study used GPS location data from 65 bird tracking studies to understand where they fly more frequently at danger height – defined as 10-60 metres above ground for power lines and 15-135 metres for wind turbines. This allowed the team to identify the areas where these birds would be more sensitive to wind turbine or power line development.

The resulting vulnerability maps reveal that the collision hotspots are particularly concentrated within important migration routes, along coastlines and near breeding locations. These include the Western Mediterranean coast of France, Southern Spain and the Moroccan Coast - such as around the Strait of Gibraltar - Eastern Romania, the Sinai Peninsula and the Baltic coast of Germany.

Species at risk

The GPS data collected related to 1,454 birds from 27 species, mostly large soaring ones such as white storks. Exposure to risk varied across the species, with the Eurasian spoonbill, European eagle owl, whooper swan, Iberian imperial eagle and white stork among those flying consistently at heights where they risk collision.

Egyptian Vulture electrocuted in Turkey on a poorly designed power pole © Süleyman Atil

The authors say development of new wind turbines and transmission power lines should be minimised in these high sensitivity areas, and any developments which do occur will likely need to be accompanied by measures to reduce the risk to birds. It is thought to be the first time GPS tracking data from multiple species had been used in this way.

Mapping the data

The researchers combined the sensitivity data with the locations of existing onshore wind farms and power lines to identify where the vulnerability hotspots are for these birds, for example the areas where they are already experiencing high risk of collision due to the presence of wind turbines or power lines.

The maps can also help target measures to reduce risks where previously built developments are already causing problems. They highlight the areas where existing energy infrastructure is already providing a source of collision risk for these birds. It is therefore a key conservation priority for additional measures to reduce collision risk are implemented in these vulnerability hotspots.

Such measures can include marking power lines to make them more visible and implementing systems to allow shutdown of wind turbines during periods of high bird traffic.

Whooper swans are one of the species prone to collision (c) Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

The future of renewables

The authors acknowledge that transition to zero carbon energy is essential to avoid runaway climate change. European onshore wind energy capacity is projected to grow nearly fourfold by 2050, and countries in the Middle East and North Africa, such as Morocco and Tunisia, also have targets to increase the share of electricity supply from onshore wind.

Alongside this there will be a huge investment in new high voltage power lines, with an estimated fivefold increase in transmission capacity required between 2010 and 2050. 

However, they warn the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure required to achieve this poses a challenge to wildlife conservation due to collision and electrocution risks, particularly for birds.

The researchers hope the study provides a method which other researchers and practitioners involved in environmental impact assessments for renewables can replicate as more data from tracking studies becomes available.

For the paper: Hotspots in the Grid: Avian Sensitivity and Vulnerability to Collision Risk from Energy Infrastructure Interactions in Europe and North Africa in the Journal of Applied Ecology 

Acknowledgments

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, was led by the University of East Anglia and involved an international team of researchers from 15 countries and organisations including the British Trust Ornithology (BTO) and the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science.

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