Which Species Of British Wildlife Are Feeling The Heat Of Climate Change?
It isn’t only humans who are affected by climate change; the UK’s birds and other species of wildlife are also threatened by a warming world.
Rising temperatures change animals’ habitats: Saltmarshes become flooded with seawater, moors and grasslands dry up in hot summers, and alpine plants decline as historically lowland species encroach on highland areas. In response, species adapted to cooler climates drift northwards, or to higher altitudes. However, this isn’t always a good solution: Moving may squeeze them into smaller territories than they used to have; or it may take them into areas with more man-made development, which aren’t suitable habitats for them. Some species are already as far north or as high up as they can go, so for them relocating isn’t an option. Therefore some birds adapted to cooler climates, like the lapwing, are decreasing in numbers; and the Scottish crossbill—a species found nowhere else in the world—is in danger of losing its only home.
It isn’t only birds that are losing their habitats. A quarter of Europe’s butterfly species, and a third of bumblebee species, are at risk of losing the vast majority of their range by the end of the century. Unlike many other pollinators, bumblebees evolved in relatively cool climates, and can’t tolerate heat well. While many animals are shifting into more northerly territories, bumblebees don’t seem to be moving—perhaps because the plants they depend on for food haven’t moved north yet.
Beyond moving to new habitats, climate change has other impacts on animals’ behaviour. Migratory bird species may need to change their migration routes, including altering where they breed and escape from the cold during winter. They may also need to change when they nest, in response to changes in the availability of the foods their young depend on; this is because climate change alters when plants flower and bear fruit, and when insects reproduce.
Climate change creates a chain reaction that echoes through every level of an ecosystem. For example, changing conditions in the ocean are affecting plankton, reducing the numbers of the sand eels that feed on them, and then kittiwakes, which eat the eels. This has contributed to a 70% decline in these seabirds in recent decades. Similarly, wetland birds are adversely affected by rising sea levels: Tidal surges bring saltwater into freshwater ecosystems, killing the fish, and in turn the birds that eat them. Extreme weather that climate change is making more common, like intense rainstorms, can also kill birds like Scotland’s capercaillie, and shags (coastal birds related to cormorants).
While climate change may feel too big for any of us to tackle on our own, together we can make a real difference.
Working with organic and other innovative farmers, we have developed solutions that can reduce agricultural emissions and protect our soils to lock up more carbon: tackling the third of greenhouse gases that come from our food and farming system.
To slow the warming of the planet and minimise the consequences for our wildlife, we need to act now. We must get these proven solutions into new post-Brexit agricultural policy.
This is where you can help.
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Want to find out more?
Discover how food and farming affect climate change, what our solutions to the problem of agricultural emissions are, or read Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner's poem on the effects of climate change, The Butterfly Thief.
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