The focus of this week’s launch of the fabulous State of UK's Birds report* was the impact of climate change on birds.
The headlines were that…
…climate change is happening: average UK temperatures have increased by nearly 1 °C since the 1980s; in the 20th century, UK sea levels rose by 14cm and the rate is increasing; rainfall has increased slightly across the UK, mostly during winter – with heavy rainfall events making a growing contribution.
…our predictions about the impact of climate change on birds are now being borne out by observation: some species are doing well, while some are vulnerable; ranges are shifting and the timing of migration is changing.
The report reinforces the need for action: both in terms of decarbonising our economy to mitigate the impact of climate change and taking action to help species adapt to a changing climate.
Today, I want to put a spotlight on the work that we have been doing through our nature reserve network to help species adapt to climate change.
For more than two decades, we have predicted that, as the climate warms, many species would move, predominantly northwards and to higher elevations. Our belief has been that for species at the southern edge of their range, the UK would become increasingly important for species as essential habitats for them could be lost. The UK also has a role to play in supporting species colonising the UK from the continent some of which may be moving north as conditions further south become unsuitable for them.
And that is why, we have been working hard to ensure our nature reserve network (which covers more than 150,000 hectares over 210 sites) develops to cater for the needs of species affected by climate change.
RSPB Ham Wall (David Kjaer, rspb-images.com)
We do this by planning for our whole network and at individual sites. For example, we try to recreate habitat that might be lost through climate change such as inter-tidal or brackish habitat which is why we embarked on the Wallasea Wild Coast Project.
We have also recreated freshwater wetlands (such as Lakenheath Fen, Ham Wall, Ouse Fen) inland away from vulnerable coastal areas and that has helped drive the recovery of species like the bittern.
As rainfall patterns are changine we are also finding ways to cope with sites that have too much water because they are increasingly prone to flooding (such as Ouse Washes) or those where there is not enough water. This is why we spend time rewetting peatlands at places like Dove Stone in the Peak District, where we are working in partnership with United Utilities. This re-wetting also reduces CO2 emissions from the dried out, oxidising peat and is also expected to reduce discoloration of drinking water.
The foresight and hard work is paying off…
…164 booming bitterns were recorded at 71 sites this year
…an increasing number of more southerly-distributed species are colonising the UK, with our nature reserves playing a key role in this colonisation (black-winged stilts at Cliffe Pools and the Ouse Washes, spoonbills at Fairburn Ings and great white egrets, little bittern and cattle egrets at Ham Wall).
This is another reminder that protected areas are already playing a critical role in helping wildlife to cope with the effects of climate change, and will continue to do so. That’s why, as the UK negotiates its withdrawal from the EU, governments across the UK must maintain or bolster existing levels of protection afforded to our most important wildlife sites.
While it is heartening that the UK has now reduced its greenhouse gas emission by 42% from 1990 levels as a contribution to the global effort, clearly the urgency to ensure we avoid the worst impacts of climate change intensifies.
Yet, as the State of UK's Birds report shows, climate change is already happening and that is why the RSPB will continue to do what it can to provide a lifeline to the most vulnerable species to buy them time to adapt.
*The State of UK's Birds 2017 is produced by a coalition of three non-governmental organisations — the RSPB, BTO and the WWT — and the UK Government's statutory nature conservation agencies — Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).
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© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654
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