New study charts future of British species

In what as been hailed as the most comprehensive study of its kind ever, 16 of the UK’s biggest government and private conservation groups have assessed the future of 50 species under current estimates of climate change forecast for the UK.

Climate Change and UK Nature Conservation: A Review of the Impact of Climate Change on UK Species and Habitat Conservation Policy, compiled by the UK Climate Impacts Programme and involving the input of the English and Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish environment agencies, English Nature, the National Trust, and NGOS such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, concluded that current forecasts of climate change “will have a significant effect on species and habitats in the UK”. “It is clear that changes are occurring and at a rate beyond the capacity of many natural systems to respond without human assistance”, says the far-reaching study, which used computer modelling and observation to track the prospects of 50 varied UK species by 2050.

One species, the mountain ringlet butterfly, will become extinct, whatever conservation efforts are made, the study found. The insect, which currently lives in the Lake District and mountainous areas of Scotland will be lost entirely due to loss of suitable habitat through climate change.

Other species among those most adversely affected will be the capercaillie, which is predicted to lose 99% of its Scottish highland habitat by 2050 as the area warms, and beech trees, which are forecast to lose out as soils become drier in the summer, disappearing altogether from the south of England and East Anglia, as well as the cold-loving bird, the snow bunting . However, it is not all bad news for the 50 UK species assessed, the study finds, as some species, including the beech and the natterjack toad, will move north to colonise newly-warmer areas.

The biggest threats to wildlife under current climate change predictions, are not only due to increased heat and dryness in southern and eastern regions, which will see the nuthatch leaving these areas altogether, but also from increased winter rainfall and severe weather events, like floods and drought. The study says that southern summers will be 22% drier by 2050, while sea levels will rise by up to 31 inches (78cm) in the south and east. Rising sea levels will cause widespread flooding of coastal habitats, with curlews, dunlins and redshanks all losing food sources, but the oyster catcher gaining them.

The habitats most sensitive to climate change effects are montane habitats and raised bogs, which are vulnerable to loss of suitable climatic conditions, soft coastal habitats, threatened by changes in coastal defences and chalk rivers, vulnerable to changes in water use and agriculture in response to climate change.

One of the principal suggestions for preserving wildlife in the study are the Countryside Stewardship schemes, which could be used to provide buffer zones around protected areas or to create stepping-stones for species and habitats to colonise new sites and establish in new locations. This latter move would protect birds, insects and mammals, but would not aid most plants, which are too slow to migrate fast enough. The study also identifies Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priorities, considering and outlining policy responses and recommends prioritised research and an early detection system. The study also says that forward assessment of conservation status is also necessary to avoid investing resources to protect habitats and species that cannot be supported under the climate of the future.

The review also raised a number of research and knowledge gaps that need to be addressed in order to facilitate conservation policy responses to climate change, including:

  • speed of response to climate change in vulnerable habitats;
  • response of built-up and garden habitats and species to climate change;
  • response of coastal habitats and species to climate change (as opposed to rising sea level);
  • best management practices to encourage the shift of habitats and species, in response to climate change, within the wider countryside; and
  • an extension of existing monitoring and status and quality assessment techniques to recognise and detect the impact of climate change on species and habitats.

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