‘Groundbreaking’ study finds seabirds avoid offshore wind farms

Seabird species avoid offshore wind farms, a pioneering radar and artificial intelligence technology backed study has revealed, which could have a 'big impact' on the consenting process for offshore wind farms, according to a planning expert.

The research, which forms part of a €3 million research investment by Swedish power company Vattenfall, monitored and generated 3D flight paths of birds moving through its Aberdeen offshore wind farm in the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC) between 2020 and 2021.

It produced data about the flying patterns of kittiwakes, herring gulls, black-backed gulls, and gannets around the wind farm.  It recorded no collisions or even narrow escapes in more than 10,000 flights.

The researchers found that nearly all species of tracked seabirds avoided the zone of the turbine blades by adjusting their flight paths to fly in between the turbines, showing avoidance behaviour of between 100-120 metres horizontally, with some species dropping altitude to avoid them and others flying higher.

Different patterns of behaviour were also observed for different species of birds, with kittiwakes putting the biggest distance between themselves and the rotors, and small and large gulls showing a strong tendency to avoid flying into the area swept by the turbine blades.

Of the birds that came within 10 metres of the zone swept by the blades, more than 96% adjusted their flight paths to avoid collision, the study found, meaning that there is a “very low risk of collision”.

However, the random forest flight models generated by the study revealed that the average avoidance response pattern may break down during specific weather conditions, such as strong winds.

Legal director at Ashfords law firm, Stephen Humphreys, who has worked on a wide range of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) in the UK and specialises in planning, said this study “could make a big impact on the discussions around sea bird collision risk”.

“I'm sure developers will be looking at ways to put forward a position based on it to show the findings of low risk,” he continued.

“Equally, I suspect there will be other groups wanting to review the assumptions and background data so that they can verify its conclusions.”

Robin Cox, environmental specialist at Vattenfall, said that the “groundbreaking research will significantly change our understanding of how seabirds behave around offshore wind farms”.

“The fact that no collisions or even near misses were recorded in two years of recording, along with so much information about the reaction of individual species means we should be able to more confidently consent wind projects while protecting the UK’s internationally important seabird populations," she added.

Dr Aly McCluskie, senior conservation scientist at RSPB, who helped the researchers, said the study is of “great value to the sensitive development of offshore wind farms and in improving our understanding of interactions of birds with turbines”.

However, he noted that collisions are a rarer issue around smaller wind farms such as the test site.

He continued: “Offshore wind is crucial to help tackle climate change, and meet net zero carbon obligations but must be developed in harmony with nature.

“Poorly sited wind farms at sea may cause massive impacts to our globally important seabird populations through habitat loss, blocking important routes and foraging sites, and direct collision with turbines.”