Climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife. Our changing climate means that many habitats become less suitable homes for our plants and wildlife. As part of The Climate Coalition, we are highlighting the changes we have already noticed on our reserves and the ways in which we are working to combat them.
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Dartford warblers are an exciting and rare symbol of lowland heathland in the south of England. These small, charismatic birds with their long tail can be seen perched on top of gorse, or searching for invertebrates or singing their raspy, distinctive song. They are dependent on heathland habitat in the UK and are particularly vulnerable to cold winters. In the 1960s Dartford warblers almost died out in the UK on account of the harsh winter of 1962/63.
As a result of climate change, Dartford warblers will become even more reliant on our UK heathland habitats. Milder winters with reduced snow would suit Dartford warbler and it is predicted that their future range would shift northwards to include much of the British Isles. However, 60% of their current range is predicted to become unsuitable, and concerning declines are already being recorded. The cause for this is not yet understood but habitat change is likely to be part of the problem.
It is therefore critical that we provide suitable habitat to ensure they can colonise our southern heathland, and also provide habitat for them to move into further north. Lowland heathland found on RSPB Reserves like Farnham and Hazeley Heath require long term management to retain the unique mosaic of open habitat.
Many other heathland specialists are not as mobile. Britain’s rarest lizards are confined to lowland heaths and some sand dune systems in the UK. Male sand lizards sport brilliant, emerald green flanks in the breeding season, resembling living jewels among the heather stems. Sand lizards rely on areas of bare sand for breeding. Camouflaged female sand lizards lay their eggs in bare sand, relying on the suns warmth to incubate them.
Climate change is likely to threaten the future of our sand lizards in several ways. Predictions suggest that there may be more heathland fires, which can destroy entire colonies in a matter of hours. Hotter drier summers may mean that buried eggs become too dry, and fail to develop, while warmer wetter winters might make it harder for lizards to successfully hibernate.
Creating bigger, more joined up heaths, with lots of bare sand to breed in, and mature heather to shelter and feed in, would undoubtedly help to protect sand lizards and Dartford warbler from the worst impacts of climate change.
We recently formed a working party with The Forestry Commission and the Thames Basin Heaths partnership project to help restore parts of Warren Heath. You can see some of our heathland conservation in action in the video below:
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