Subarctic afforestation: effects of forest plantations on ground-nesting birds in lowland Iceland.
Planting forests is a commonly suggested measure to mitigate climate change. The resulting changes in habitat structure can greatly influence the diversity and abundance of pre-existing wildlife. Understanding these consequences is key for avoiding unintended impacts of afforestation on habitats and populations of conservation concern. Afforestation in lowland Iceland has been gaining momentum in recent years and further increases are planned. Iceland supports internationally important breeding populations of several ground-nesting, migratory bird species that mostly breed in open habitats. If afforestation impacts the distribution and abundance of these species, the consequences may be apparent throughout their non-breeding ranges across Europe and Africa. To quantify the effects of plantation forests on the abundance and distribution of ground-nesting birds (in particular waders, Charadriiformes), surveys were conducted on 161 transects (surrounding 118 plantations) perpendicular to forest edges throughout Iceland. The resulting variation in density with distance from plantation was used to estimate the likely changes in bird numbers resulting from future afforestation plans, and to explore the potential effects of different planting configuration (size and number of forest patches) scenarios. Of seven wader species, densities of five (golden plover Pluvialis apricaria, whimbrel Numenius phaeopus, oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, dunlin Calidris alpina and black-tailed godwit Limosa limosa) in the 200 m surrounding plantations were just under half of those further away (up to 700 m). Redshank Tringa totanus densities were lowest ≤ 150 m from the plantation edge while snipe Gallinago gallinago densities were 50% higher close to plantations (0-50 m) than further away (51-700 m), and no consistent effects of plantation height, diameter, density or type were identified. Plantations are typically small and widespread, and simulated scenarios indicated that total declines in bird abundance resulting from planting trees in one large block (1,000 ha) could result in only ~11% of the declines predicted from planting multiple small blocks (1 ha) in similar habitats. Synthesis and application. Planting forests in open landscapes can have severe impacts on populations of ground-nesting birds, which emphasizes the need for strategic planning of tree-planting schemes. Given Iceland's statutory commitments to species protection and the huge contribution of Iceland to global migratory bird flyways, these are challenges that must be addressed quickly, before population-level impacts are observed across migratory ranges.