Britain’s birds facing extinction as climate change leaves them with nowhere to go

1.3.2009   (Observer)

As temperatures rise and European breeds arrive, native species such as the lapwing
and Scottish crossbill are being forced out.   Soon, say the RSPB and Durham University,
many of our rare birds will disappear

by Robin McKie, science editor

Britain’s birds are being driven northwards to extinction at an accelerating
rate because of global warming.

Scientists have calculated that the average range of British birds will move
550 kilometres (340 miles) to the north by 2100 as the climate heats up.

Birds with ranges in Scotland or in mountain regions will be wiped out – such
as the snow bunting, which today survives only on the Cairngorm plateau.   The Scottish crossbill, the only bird species unique to the British Isles, is also likely to perish.

At the same time, many populations based in south England will thrive as foreign species will take over more and more of the countryside.   Already continental birds
such as the hoopoe and the serin are poised to cross the Channel, ornithologists have warned.

“We are already seeing significant changes to British birdlife and these are
only going to accelerate,” said Dr Steve Willis of Durham University.

In a study to be published on Wednesday in the journal Public Library of Science, researchers will reveal they have found detailed evidence to show a significant
wildlife transformation is under way.

The report, by Durham University and the Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds (RSPB), outlines changes that have already occurred in the past two decades in response to the 0.6C rise that has affected the nation.

Two particular birds provide telling evidence of the future facing the British
countryside and its inhabitants: the lapwing and the cirl bunting, a relative of the yellowhammer.  

The cirl bunting is common around the Mediterranean, although its range has steadily
moved northwards until, late last century, a breeding colony was established in
the south of England. By 1989 there were 118 breeding pairs. Today the population
has spread and there are now more than 700 pairs. By the end of this century,
cirl bunting are likely to be found throughout most of England and Ireland.

By contrast, the lapwing – one of the most characteristic British farmland birds of the 19th and 20th
centuries – has suffered devastating drops in population because of changes in
agriculture, in particular the introduction of winter-sowing of crops.   Now global
warming is adding to these effects, with the result that the lapwing has already
suffered a 47% reduction in numbers and seems destined to earn itself the status
of an
endangered species in Britain.

However, it is the very north of Britain that faces the most worrying changes.
Apart from the Scottish crossbill and the snow bunting, the Arctic skua, Leach’s petrel and the common scooter also face extinction by the end of the century.

“There is simply no place left for these birds to go,” said Graham Madge of the
RSPB.   “The crossbill is now confined to the very north of Scotland.   As Europe
heats up, only Iceland offers the prospect of a new homeland.  However, the crossbill
cannot fly that far – certainly not enough across the North Sea. Similarly, the
snow bunting has had to move further and further up the Cairngorms as the climate
has warmed.   Basically it is running out of mountain.”

In a separate study published last week, Dr Willis also studied the impact of
global warming on insect life and in particular on butterflies. His research showed that species cannot migrate fast enough to keep up with
global warming.    “The nation’s temperature gradient is moving northwards at a
rate of about 4km a year, while the butterflies are only capable of moving range at about 1km a year,”
said Dr Willis. “This implies that birds – which feed on insects – could face
serious problems in finding food as they move north.”

Other losers will be the red-neck phalarope and the snipe, both wetland birds that are are unlikely to fare well in the coming decades.
 By contrast, the bizarrely feathered hoopoe, a south European interloper which
has now reached northern France, as well as the Dartford warbler, currently confined to a small area of southern England, are both expected to

“In the past, climate change has affected wildlife in these islands,” added Dr Willis.     “However, species
have adapted because these changes were relatively gradual.     But what is happening
now is so rapid, birds simply cannot adapt, and so face extinction.”