by Professor James Pearce-Higgins.
As part of my ‘day job’, I led the production of a report on the impacts of climate change on UK birds, to coincide with the Glasgow Climate Change (COP26) in November. It might seem surprising, but many of the effects of climate change that we have seen so far in the UK have been positive, particularly on common and widespread resident birds that now have a reduced risk of cold weather mortality in winter. Familiar garden species like wrens and long-tailed tits are now more common as a result. Populations of long-distance migrants to Africa, such as the swallows and reed warblers that we see at Foxearth Meadows in the summer, instead fluctuate in response to weather conditions in Africa, particularly benefitting from wet seasons with lots of rainfall that boost insect populations.
This positive story is not ubiquitous though, and as the report identifies, the most negative impacts of climate change on our breeding birds are on upland birds like golden plovers and ring ouzels, and seabirds like the puffin and kittiwake, for which we hold internationally important populations. For these species, climate change disrupts their ecosystems, resulting in reduced breeding success and survival. We show that the birds which respond negatively to warmer temperatures have tended to suffer long-term population declines, whilst those which respond positively to warming have generally increase in abundance. It is clear that climate change is altering the bird communities around us; birds are migrating and breeding earlier and many species are expanding their distribution northwards.
Future warming will exacerbate these trends. Most of our seabirds are highly vulnerable to future negative impacts of climate change, as are many of our upland birds. Much-loved species like the puffin, Arctic tern, curlew and red grouse are all threatened, whilst conversely, many of our wetland bird species that we sometimes see at Foxearth Meadows, are likely to benefit from warming. This includes species like Cetti’s warbler and the little egret which are rapidly expanding their distributions across the UK.
Clearly we need to act on climate change, not just because some 7% of bird species globally are estimated as being at risk of extinction from climate change, but particularly as we have heard at COP26, for the sake of the world’s poor. In this interconnected globe, everyone is our neighbour. How we respond to climate change will also have a massive impact on our birdlife. Large-scale tree planting has been advocated as one solution to climate change, which if managed properly could be great for many woodland birds, but at the moment there is a risk that in the UK, it will be concentrated in marginal upland habitats where declining species like curlew are concentrated. There are also ambitious targets for large-scale offshore wind farms to generate lots of renewable electricity, which is great, but this will also need careful planning to avoid damaging vulnerable seabird populations like kittiwakes which can collide with the turbines.
Although these issues sound difficult to resolve, the long-term monitoring that the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) engages with through citizen scientists, coupled with professional research, enables us to track the impacts of climate change, and provides the evidence to ensure that these risks to birds can be taken into account.
Climate change is an issue that can make some feel uncertain or even despairing about the future. But those of us who our Christians worship a sovereign God of history who has already enacted his plan to save humanity and restore all of creation through his Son, Jesus Christ. So please be encouraged by the words of the psalmist that, ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.’ (Psalm 46:1-3).
About the author: Professor James Pearce-Higgins is Head of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology, and was lead author of a report that caught the attention of the media. James is an A Rocha UK trustee and is a member of the Foxearth Meadows Steering Group for the reserve.
Originally written for our quarterly Foxearth Meadows news and prayer letter (Winter 2021). Sign up to receive future emails here.