The implications of disturbance to breeding birds have been the focus of much research and review in recent years (Hockin et al. 1992, Hill et al. 1997) and the potential effects of recreational disturbance on birds in the countryside have attracted particular attention (e.g. Burger & Gochfeld 1998, Sidaway 1990, Burger et al. 1995, Fitzpatrick & Bouchez 1998, Woodfield & Langston 2004). The introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in England and Wales in 2000 provided added incentive and resources for nature conservationists to develop further an understanding of how recreational access might affect bird populations. The CRoW Act grants a right of access on foot for the purpose of open air recreation to specified categories of land, with the majority of the new access land focused on the uplands in the north and west and the downlands and heathlands in the south. The potential for interaction between people enjoying these new access rights and birds is highlighted by the extent of the overlap between access land and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), with 55% of all access land covering little more than a million hectares of land designated as SSSIs (Bathe 2007). With SSSIs receiving some 370 million visits even before the introduction of a statutory right of access, further research into the potential effect of recreational access on wildlife was considered a high priority among nature conservation organizations.

English Nature, the statutory conservation agency for England at the time, commissioned an assessment of the research needs for birds and access in 2001. A group of key researchers in the field of bird disturbance in the UK undertook this assessment and recommended a range of research projects. The group agreed that the objectives for future research should be to increase the understanding of how disturbance can affect bird populations and to identify solutions to reconcile the new access provisions with nature conservation. Although the number of studies of human disturbance has increased greatly since the 1980s (Liley 2002), the group considered that it was difficult to apply much of the existing research to the above objectives. This was in no way a criticism of the earlier work, but instead recognized that most of that research focused on bird behaviour rather than the consequences of disturbance for populations. Although such behavioural studies are useful, in that they can reveal potential mechanisms for disturbance effects, and can identify circumstances under which disturbance might reduce population levels, in isolation they do not provide evidence of an impact (Gill 2007, Sutherland 2007). Nature conservation organizations need to know where the implications of increased access are of sufficient concern to merit the use of special restrictions, for which there is provision under the CRoW Act (Bathe 2007). To do this, research must, ultimately, establish whether disturbance reduces the numbers of birds on the affected site, be it an extensive area of moorland or a fragment of heathland. Historically, little research has been carried out on the effects of disturbance at the population level. This is because the effects of disturbance are often subtle and placing them into a population context requires a detailed understanding of the demography of the species concerned (Liley 2002). Accordingly, recommendations for future work included the application of the type of population model that was developed for Ringed Plovers Charadrius hiaticula (Liley 1999, Liley & Sutherland 2007) to other species; the further development of existing behaviour-based, individual energetic models to predict the effect of disturbance on non-breeding birds; and the quantification of disturbance effects in terms of resource use for a number of breeding species.

Following this initial assessment the Wildlife and Access Advisory Group (WAAG), comprising the statutory conservation agencies together with representatives from voluntary conservation bodies, was established to commission new research to meet the above recommendations. This included work on a number of species considered to be a priority for research, including the Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus, Woodlark Lullula arborea and Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata. In order to present the results of this work, along with details of the approach and findings of other recent research projects, the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU) held its 2005 Autumn Scientific Meeting on Birds and Recreational Disturbance.

The conference was held in Peterborough on 16 November 2005 and was supported by English Nature. There were over 140 attendees from a wide range of organizations, including the scientific community, conservation bodies, local planning authorities, environmental consultants and government representatives. The main objectives of the conference were to provide a clearer understanding of how to carry out assessments of disturbance impacts and what restrictions or other mitigation measures might be appropriate to reduce these impacts. The conference was opened by Professor Bill Sutherland from the University of East Anglia and he emphasized that the development of behavioural models, which allow us to predict the implications of disturbance for bird populations, will be an important tool for future assessments. He also stressed the need to put theory into practice and collate evidence for the effectiveness of management measures in reducing the negative impacts of disturbance.

The presentations that followed, and which are presented in these proceedings of the conference, gave a full and varied account of the different approaches that can be employed to assess the effects of disturbance on birds. These include behaviour-based population modelling, demographic studies exploring the consequences of disturbance for breeding success and correlative studies using landscape features as a surrogate for direct disturbance. Many of these studies also met the second objective of the conference by drawing out practical mitigation measures that can be used to offset the adverse effects of recreational access on wildlife.

At the close of a wide-ranging and constructive plenary session, Professor Sutherland brought together the key messages for the future. As well as the need for further population-level assessments, it was also concluded that future research should not be limited to studying birds, but should also determine what influences the patterns of human access, with a view to monitoring changes in the numbers of people visiting the countryside and understanding how they behave. Only with this twin approach of studying the impacts of people on bird biology and identifying measures that effectively reduce this impact will it be possible to reconcile people's freedom to enjoy the countryside with conserving bird populations.


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  2. Acknowledgments

Birds & Recreational Disturbance was a scientific meeting organized by Allan Drewitt (Natural England) and Steve Dudley (BOU) on behalf of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The BOU is grateful to the individual speakers and their respective organizations for presenting their work at the conference. The conference and these proceedings have been supported generously by English Nature.


  1. Top of page
  2. Acknowledgments
  • Bathe, G. 2007. Political and social drivers for access to the countryside: the need for research on birds and recreational disturbance. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 1): 38.
  • Burger, J. & Gochfeld, M. 1998. Effects of ecotourists on bird behaviour at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Environ. Conserv. 25: 1321.
  • Burger, J., Gochfeld, M. & Niles, L.J. 1995. Ecotourism and birds in coastal New Jersey – contrasting responses of birds, tourists, and managers. Environ. Conserv. 22: 5665.
  • Fitzpatrick, S. & Bouchez, B. 1998. Effects of recreational disturbance on the foraging behaviour of waders on a rocky beach. Bird Study 45: 157171.
  • Gill, J. 2007. Approaches to measuring the effects of human disturbance on birds. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 1): 914.
  • Hill, D., Hockin, D., Price, D., Tucker, G., Morris, R. & Treweek, J. 1997. Bird disturbance: improving the quality and utility of disturbance research. J. Appl. Ecol. 34: 275288.
  • Hockin, D., Ounsted, M., Gorman, M., Hill, D., Keller, V. & Barker, M.A. 1992. Examination of the effects of disturbance on birds with reference to its importance in ecological assessments. J. Environ. Manage. 36: 253286.
  • Liley, D. 1999. Predicting the Consequences of Human Disturbance, Predation and Sea Level Rise for Ringed Plover Populations. PhD thesis. Norwich: University of East Anglia.
  • Liley, D. 2002. Access to the Countryside and Bird Conservation: Priorities for Research. English Nature Research Report 485. Peterborough, UK: English Nature.
  • Liley, D. & Sutherland, W.J. 2007. Predicting the population consequences of human disturbance for Ringed Plovers Charadrius hiaticula: a game theory approach. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 1): 8294.
  • Sidaway, R. 1990. Birds and Walkers: a Review of Existing Research on Access to the Countryside and Disturbance to Birds. London: Ramblers Association.
  • Sutherland, W.J. 2007. Future directions in disturbance research. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 1): 120124.
  • Woodfield, E. & Langston, R. 2004. A Study of the Effects on Breeding Nightjars of Access on Foot to Heathland. RSPB Research Report no. 11. Sandy, Bedfordshire: RSPB.