9 may 2013

Effects of climate change on UK wildlife

Science | Environment

The common frog
The common frog 'threatened by climate change'. Copyright: Natural England/Paul Lacey

Flooding is a risk for most UK mammals and climate change is also affecting several British reptile and amphibian species, according to research by leading Oxford University scientists. Their research is contained in a series of Report Cards launched today that sets out to explain the key trends in how the British countryside is responding to climate change.

The Terrestrial Biodiversity Report Card summarises the main themes from hundreds of scientific studies. It has been commissioned by the Living With Environmental Change Partnership, led by NERC with Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England. The series is designed to provide policy makers, land managers, environmental consultants and researchers with the most up-to-date evidence on the effects on climate change.

Dr Pam Berry from Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute is on the working party that peer-reviews the scientific papers used for the Report Cards. In the first Report Card, she and ECI researcher Rob Dunford have provided the latest research on how climate change is affecting the UK’s amphibians and reptiles. They suggest that the smooth snake, natterjack toad and common toad could potentially gain a larger habitat with the right climatic conditions to move northward. By contrast, the common lizards, smooth newts and adders are projected to lose suitable climatic conditions across England under many climate change scenarios, but they may expand into Scotland.

Dr Berry said: ‘Modelling has suggested that climate change could have little impact on species such as the common toad, but it could pose a threat to several British reptile and amphibian species, including the adder and common frog. Understanding the current and potential future impacts of climate change on species and habitats is an important first step to taking appropriate conservation action. The Report Card will give an indication of how our wildlife might change in the future and where action might be most needed.’

Other contributors, Professor David Macdonald and Chris Newman from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru) at Oxford University,  say flooding is a risk to almost all mammals, except bats, as when nests or burrows flood, the young often drown or die from chilling. High rainfall before the mating season can also mean that prospective parents are not able to successfully forage for food, which affects their body condition and subsequent breeding success.

The first Report Card has been compiled by Britain’s top 40 environmental scientists and 20 different research and conservation organisations. It warns that much more change is on the way, even on the most conservative interpretation of climate change projections available.

Changes noted by other scientists include a sharp decline in wildfowl and wading birds wintering in the UK. Surveys carried out between the winters of 1997/8 and 2007/8 show that there has been a 44 per cent decline in the number of Bewick’s swans in the UK as the birds travel further north and east to other parts of Europe. Other species to have moved northwards or to higher ground include dragonflies and the bee orchid, which have expanded their range in Britain. However, other northern and upland species, such as the mountain ringlet butterfly, are experiencing a diminishing habitat.