Afforestation of open habitats is one of the principal land-use changes underway in Europe and elsewhere in the world at present, and it can have a considerable impact on local biodiversity. The sustainable expansion of global forest plantations requires an understanding of the factors that determine the ecological impacts of afforestation. This study set out to determine the importance of preceding land-use type in determining the outcomes of afforestation for bird communities. Paired comparisons of 5-year-old exotic conifer plantations and matching non-forested sites were studied in areas of low (peatland), intermediate (wet grassland) and high (improved grassland) management intensity. Afforestation resulted in an overall increase in total bird density in all three habitat types. The effects of forest planting on bird conservation were found to be positively related to prior management intensity at the site. The density of bird species of conservation concern increased in response to the planting of intensively managed grassland sites, but decreased in response to afforestation of peatlands and of grasslands under intermediate management intensity. This study shows that plantation forests can, in some contexts, offer opportunities for bird conservation, and the findings highlight the trade-offs that are an integral part of land-use change. Therefore, where afforestation planning includes consideration of its impact on bird communities, planting should take place predominantly on sites of low biodiversity value, such as agriculturally improved grasslands. Furthermore, the preservation of sites of high conservation value within areas of afforestation would confer advantages on bird communities.