Climate change impacts on wildlife distributions in the UK

13 April 2021
Comments 2
Category Blog, Wild Christian
13 April 2021, Comments 2

Climate Change and Nature Blog Series No 3

by Colin Beale

Continuing our recent theme of climate change impacts on nature, this month we’ll turn to one of the most obvious impacts of climate change: changes in distributions – or where and how widely different species actually live in the UK. 

As the climate changes we’ve seen how the timing of biological events change, and how climate change impacts population dynamics. Many of these changes are rather tricky to actually observe: you have to be paying very close attention to notice frogspawn arriving a few days earlier, or a change in birth rates. 

As these changes accumulate, however, they can lead to distribution shifts. One example of this distribution shift is when climate change can make previously unsuitable places (where mortality rates were too high to sustain a population of a species) become more suitable.  Subsequently, individuals dispersing beyond the usual breeding areas can establish new populations of a species in places that they were previously unknown. Around my hometown of York, for example, we’ve gained Nuthatches and Brown Argus butterflies in the last few years, species previously restricted to warmer parts of southern England. Indeed, because the UK is a fairly northern country, many species previously restricted to southern counties have been moving north, at an average rate of about 20 km per decade, and we’ve gained entirely new breeding bird species in these islands, like Black-winged Stilt and Glossy Ibis. All the colonisations are signs of wildlife successfully adapting to changing environmental conditions by shifting northwards.

The flip side of distribution shifts, however, are the losses: species like the Scotch Argus butterflies are restricted to the cool uplands and are retreating ever further up the mountains. With nowhere further north to go, such northern species as Dotterel, mountain ringlet and Iceland purslane are likely to be driven to extinction in the UK. This presents a conundrum for conservationists: in the UK these are very rare and highly threatened species, obvious priorities for conservation. However, if the species is common elsewhere where it is facing less of a threat from climate change, do we continue conservation actions in the UK, or do we prioritise scarce conservation funding on species with a better long-term chance of survival? And what about the Scotch Argus, which is actually a European priority species for which the UK has internationally important populations?

Further challenges for conservation arise from the observation that different species are showing different distribution changes in response to climate: some seem more sensitive to rainfall changes, others to temperature while others seem largely indifferent. This means that new communities of species are coming together that have no recent history of coexistence. We have little insight into how novel communities may function: could one species harbour a disease to which another is highly susceptible, for example, or will different upland plant communities be better or worse at storing carbon? Nor is the conservation community prepared to respond to wholesale community shifts: many conservationists still remain fixed on the mistaken (and unchristian) belief that our aim should be to restore some mythical pre-human or pre-industrial baseline. 

Overall, and thanks to our northern location, the UK looks set to see more ‘winners’ than ‘losers’ from climate change-driven range shifts, but this is only thanks to our northern location. And it may be only short-lived. Although the current distribution changes we see are signs that many species are successfully adapting to changing climates, a key question is whether they can continue to move at a rate sufficient to keep up with ever increasing rates of climate change? This is surely easier for birds and insects than many plants. 

Facilitating distribution shifts and welcoming novel communities provide interesting challenges for conservation today. Do you have views on how the conservation community, and A Rocha UK within it, should be responding?  Do let us know via the comment function.

About the author: Colin is Reader in Ecology at the University of York, where he leads a group of researchers studying spatial patterns in ecology and conservation biology in the UK and globally. He previously worked for A Rocha Portugal and A Rocha Lebanon and is now a trustee of A Rocha UK. As a member of his local parish church, Colin also advises the Diocese of York on environmental matters.

This blog was written for A Rocha UK’s Wild Christian email, April 2021Sign up here to receive future Wild Christian emails

2 responses on “Climate change impacts on wildlife distributions in the UK

  1. Very informative article, and interesting point raised about shifts in communities and potential creation of new communities. This raises the question of whether conservation efforts should be focused on individual species or rather entire habitats. I think the rewilding initiative is moving towards allowing habitats and species to establish a new equilibrium in a change world using what we have in the UK now, and seeing what will form under less human intervention. Does this follow our remit as stewards of creation though, or should we be more involved? Maybe Nature can manage itself better than us, but it’s hard on a small island with little space for movement in response to climate change, so I think some intervention is required.
    The Environment Bill will hopefully secure further scope for Environmental protection at a habitat scale, through the Biodiversity Net Gain approach, but time will be needed to see if this works better for biodiversity than our current approach (which hasn’t seemed that successful for many species as seen by the continued decline in biodiversity over the last 40 years). But Rewilding and Biodiversity Net Gain are specialist mechanisms, understood by precious few. What is really needed is to get individuals in our local communities interested in being the change. As an Ecologist, I work with a local ‘Friends of’ group in North West England and it is still work in progress trying to get the local community to take pride in what they have, not litter, respect habitats and accept relaxed mowing of open spaces, especially over winter when the wildflower flush has gone. Perception change is what is key, at a local level and all of us who understand ourselves as Stewards of Creation have an important role in this. Improving knowledge and understanding of our local wild spaces, may just help and this requires the experts continuing their studies, whilst feeding their finding back to the layman so we can all play our part.

    • Colin Beale says:

      Hi Rosalind,

      Thanks for your comment! I think there is much to be said for rewilding, but I don’t think it solves all conservation challenges, nor (as you also note) do I think it reflects either the Christian responsibility to be stewards of creation. I also think it promotes an unhelpful and incorrect alienation of human world and the rest of creation. Rather, I think secular and Christians alike need to recognise that we are a part of the natural order and some ideal ‘pre-human’ world is a myth. This is never stronger than in the parts of East Africa where I do much of my research: in the cradle of humanity, where pretty much every organism has co-evolved with our hominin ancestors over millions of years, I still come across people demanding conservation create landscapes devoid of humans, arguing it is more natural. In the UK, our landscapes and ecosystems all formed in the 12,000 years since the last ice-age and, again, have formed in the pretty much continuous presence of humans. Any idea of rewilding to a pre-human natural system is at best pursuit of a myth, at worst simple continuation of colonial, racist prejudice and neither reflects our God given role as stewards.

      That said, I think some of the (incredibly diverse) ideas behind rewilding are absolutely excellent and entirely sensible. For example, anything that increases the ‘trophic complexity’ of a landscape by introducing animals and plants that promote different feeding and foraging regimes tends to boost diversity much more generally, and the general movement away from species conservation to conservation of processes are very much needed.

      I also completely agree that without widespread perception (and ultimately lifestyle) change there’s little chance creation can thrive in the UK. Essentially, creation care is a moral issue that is largely being undermined by the sin of greed. That said, I am really encouraged by the early signs of wider societies demand for change in the last couple of years. This is also why I find the work of A Rocha so exciting: Christians should be leading the moral and ethical charge here, and the church also has a long-established track record of changing lives!