With global warming more and more settling in the UK, a lot of species in wildlife will see a change in their habits and habitats, writes Aubane Lemaire
According to scientists, we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction event on our planet, and climate change is one of its main causes.
When hearing “threatened species”, one usually thinks of tigers or elephants, but the UK has lost more than 500 native species in the last 200 years, a phenomenon which accelerated in the 20th Century, including 12 per cent of mammals like the great auk and the red-backed shrike, and almost a quarter of its native butterflies.
During this WWF’s Earth Hour, it is important that we reflect on our habits before it becomes too late to save species which are essential to our biodiversity and sometimes our economy.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change attributes climate change to “rising levels of carbon dioxide and (…) methane”, also known as greenhouse gases, which are “almost entirely due to human activity” such as agriculture, chemical manufacturing and deforestation. Those threaten animals and their habitats.
Dr Pam Berry, a lecturer in Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford, thinks economic growth is given priority over local wildlife, even though “there are some planning constraints like the Wildlife and Countryside Act which will help certain species and initiatives”.
For Fred Rumsey, a botanist at the National History Museum in London, the most threatened species in the UK are “those which rely on colder winters, particularly those living at the greatest altitudes”, like Scottish Wildcats in the Highlands. Others on the coast like bottlenose dolphins can also be threatened by storminess, pollution and increasing sea levels due to melting polar ice sheets.
Marine wildlife is also under threat. According to Carbon Brief’s website, in 2014, around 429 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) were released into the atmosphere. This CO2 is absorbed by the oceans, increasing their acidity, which then stunts the growth of shellfish like oysters and makes the water warmer, damaging the environment for fish. Pollutants in the oceans are absorbed in fish stocks, and eventually end up entering the food chain, affecting humans.
If the situation worsens, this may have serious consequences from how animals control their habitats and other animals’ populations to impacts on our lives.
Climate change is progressing too rapidly for some animals to adapt. But nature is strong, and some are managing to evolve to protect themselves.
Dr Berry estimates that “species that experience a sort of seasonality might be better able to cope with climate, as well as mobile species like birds and insects which can move and keep pace with climate.”
To stay alive, or to avoid extreme climates like in the Wetlands where water availability can go from floods to drought in a few months, some species then have to move upwards to cooler parts of the country.
While native species are being forced out, new species are arriving to the UK. Dr Berry adds that some of them, especially birds like Dartford warblers, increase the biodiversity, while those living in warmer places like badgers have more space available. The downside is that this puts even more pressure on native species if invasive species enter the UK. We might for instance see some great white sharks coming to our coasts in the future, looking for a colder habitat.
The disappearance of bees because of global warming and pesticides can also diminish pollination and the agriculture we need for our food. Indeed, if they are not pollinated, we may fall short of plants like corn, or apple trees, indispensable to make cider, a great part of the UK’s economy.
If we want to avoid this, we have to change our ways and protect wildlife. Simon Duffield, a Senior Specialist in Climate Change Adaption at Natural England, says: “There are many examples, like Wallsea or Medmerry, along the coast, where managed realignment has been undertaken to adapt to current and future sea level rise. This type of forward planning and action is going to become increasingly important.”
Protection also comes with conservation of the species. Natural England provides incentives for environmentally-friendly farming, manages some natural reserves and ensures that the legislation on protected sites and species is adhered to. Not everyone is pleased though. For some like Dr Berry, not enough is being done and some protected areas “are not in good conditions”.
Willing to make a big change at a national level, some lobbying groups try to pressurise the Government and those who hold power to take greater action to fight climate change.
“Not all of these impacts [by the Government] are necessarily negative, for example the use of “carbon credits”, which allow for some fixed amount of CO2 pollution by businesses in exchange for conservation and tree-planting elsewhere in the world, will have an impact on the wildlife that uses the woodland which is conserved or planted as a result of that scheme,” says Will Johnstone, an MSc student in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford.
While some believe that conservation reserves may be the best way to save endangered species by preserving their natural habitat, others, like Henry Norris, a 4th year student in Marine Biology at Southampton University, argue that we are still not doing enough to fight the causes of climate change and to reduce CO2 emissions.
On the contrary, some, like Dr Berry, take on a more laissez-faire approach: “I tend to let nature take its course because I think it’s very hard to put a real management plan in place. Whatever action you take for one species can be counter-productive for another group of species with a slightly different habitat requirement.”
A lot more needs to be done to protect the UK’s wildlife from climate change, and it may soon become an emergency to avoid more consequences for animals and humans. But for Henry Norris, “the problem with climate change is that it is almost designed to be not taken seriously by humans.”