Poorly designed beach restoration threatens bird conservation

The recent approval of the Nature Restoration Law on June 17, 2024 represents a milestone for nature conservation in the European Union (EU) territory. The controversial processing of this law, which has threatened the credibility of European institutions to halt and reverse ecosystem degradation, now marks the European Commission’s roadmap, which seeks to recover 30% of terrestrial ecosystems and degraded marine resources by 2030, and 90% by 2050.

Taking into account that more than 80% of European habitats are in a poor state of conservation, it is clear that much work remains to be done and a large part of the EU territory is in the spotlight.

Those dedicated to ecological restoration, a discipline that requires some time, will know that these are ambitious objectives, difficult to meet if they are not nurtured by large-scale restorations. And that is the problem: little time to think and do things well leaves little room to design projects that respect all biodiversity and are agreed upon by politicians, managers and ecologists from different disciplines.

The beach, in the spotlight of restoration

But not all degraded ecosystems have the same chance of being restored. Land ownership and the presence of priority habitats have so far been determining factors when it comes to receiving funding for restoration projects in the EU.

The coast is generally in public ownership and the Habitats Directive includes 18 types of dune habitat of community interest, five of which are considered priorities. It is no surprise, then, that beaches have been the target of many restoration projects.

But could restoring destroyed habitats be harmful? An article I recently published in the magazine Nature Ecology and Evolution focuses precisely on this paradox. Evidence suggests that a lack of multi-disciplinarity when designing dune restoration projects is leading to the loss of habitats and threatened species associated with open environments with low vegetation cover, which are typically found in the area closest to the beach.

Consequences for coastal birds

Beaches are feeding, resting and breeding habitats for many species of seabirds and waders, some of which are specific to these environments.

However, most of these birds use only the shore (for feeding) and a small strip of beach for breeding, where the remains deposited by the sea accumulate and the first dunes form, which usually have very little vegetation coverage. This is the habitat we usually call a “dry beach” in contrast to a “wet beach”, due to the effect of waves.

Plovers represent one of the examples of birds most closely linked to these coastal environments. These birds nest directly on the bare sand, in open, flat spaces with almost no plants around them, since their strategy is to have good vision from the nest in order to quickly detect the arrival of a possible predator and be able to fly away to survive.

The future of beaches and birds in the face of climate change

These habitat preferences coincide with those of people who use this part of the beach to walk and lay out their towels, so birds are losing habitat as demand for recreational use of beaches increases.

The future prospects for coastal birds are not good. Rising sea levels as a result of climate change threaten to reduce their breeding habitats, narrow dry beaches and cause significant erosion of embryonic mobile dunes.

Beaches are disappearing, a fact that is no secret to most citizens, managers and scientists. It is one of the ecosystems most affected by climate change and its maintenance is vital to protect the coast and sustain economies based on sun and beach tourism.

This concern has inspired numerous and recurring restoration initiatives based on creating more stable (resilient) systems in the face of erosion or flood threat.

Thus, activities based on moving the sand and forming very high mobile dunes are frequent, which are repopulated with plants until they almost completely cover the sand, thus creating barriers to reduce the impact of waves during storms.

There is also a proliferation of small-scale initiatives (often by NGOs) that attempt to repopulate some of the devoid of vegetation that remain along the beaches.

Another coastal restoration model

The last thing shorebirds need is a landscape of small or large-scale restoration projects focused solely on covering every last piece of bare sand with vegetation. There are many urban beaches seeking permission for dunes. The sustainability of its sand and, ultimately, its future, depends on whether we stop seeing beaches as simple leisure areas and learn to share them with birds and plants. Of course, these are not gardens, there is no need to green them up to fulfill their ecological function.

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