Climate change forcing species on the move

This week, the IPCC published a landmark report looking at the impacts of climate change, including on biodiversity.

The report expresses with high confidence that in Europe one of the key climate change impacts on wildlife will be shifts in ranges, with species generally following the warming climate northwards. 

The Met Office’s climate spokesman Grahame Madge is a keen amateur naturalist who has been following these changes for many years. On UN World Wildlife Day he looks at how climate change is affecting the species which occur in the UK.

In Europe and the UK naturalists have been noting for several decades that the ranges of many species have generally been drifting north and uphill. Since the 1960s there have been a good number of species, especially insects, which have colonised the UK from further south in Europe. Additionally there is some evidence that a number of species which are at the southern end of the range in the UK – those that are found on mountains or nearer the Arctic – have also shifted north.

Little Egret

In just over a quarter of a century the little egret has colonised most of the UK. Picture: Grahame Madge.



The pioneering work A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds, published in 2008, produced a series of climate change projections for all of Europe’s bird species. It revealed that for the average bird species the potential distribution by the end of this century will shift nearly 550 km north east, equivalent to the distance from Plymouth to Newcastle. The average bird’s distribution will also be reduced in size by a fifth and overlap the current range by only 40 per cent. The atlas also showed that three quarters of all of Europe’s nesting bird species are likely to suffer declines in range. In 2008, the Climate projections for some of these species show continued decline or even UK extirpation.

Although there may be other factors at play, such as persecution and habitat loss, these projections are now increasingly being realised as wildlife is forced to move in response to a changing climate, if it can.

Through meticulous recording schemes, naturalists have been noting the shifting distributions of many species, with a general trend towards species’ ranges moving north with some crossing the Channel from Europe to colonise the UK.

Notable has been the spread of the little egret – a white heron once more frequent around the Mediterranean. It is now a familiar inhabitant across much of Britain, especially the south. Before 1996, the little egret was only a casual visitor to the UK with the first nests being recorded in Dorset. Today the little egret is a familiar bird along any stretch of river, wetland or foreshore. A number of other herons have been following in its footsteps, including the great white egret and cattle egret, both of which are becoming established in the UK countryside.

Long-winged Conehead

Long-winged Conehead. Picture: Grahame Madge

The spread of ‘showy’ species like the little egret have been easy to observe, but mirroring their spread has been a multitude of smaller creatures whose shifts in ranges has been better appreciated by experts. In the 1940s, the long-winged conehead was more or less confined to the south coast of England, but today it is being recorded well up into the Midlands where it finds a similar climate.

Median Wasp

Median Wasp. Picture: Grahame Madge

New species are being recorded in Britain for the first time every year. The median wasp was first seen in the UK in Sussex in 1980, but now it can be seen north to northern England.

Winged insects can be blown on favourable breezes or can find their way to new locations under their own power. When arriving in new areas they require suitable areas of habitat. The work of the Met Office’s Biodiversity Working Group has helped provide a refuge for colonising species, including the Small Red-eyed Damselfly which was only first recorded in the UK as recently as 1999. I became familiar with this species in Bedfordshire, so I was delighted to be the first person to record it for the Met Office as the species has spread along the south coast to colonise our wildlife ponds at our Exeter headquarters.


Extinct as a British nesting bird, the wryneck is now only seen as a rare visitor. This individual was seen at Portland Bill. Picture: Grahame Madge

Climate change is providing an imperative for species to move their ranges and for some there are new opportunities. But for others the picture is bleaker. The wryneck is a bird which is adapted to warm summers, typical of continental Europe. It used to nest in the UK, but has become extinct as a nesting bird in the UK. Even though the climate in the UK should become more suitable for it, there are other challenges – such as a shortage of ant-rich grassland – which is creating a block to its recovery.

Climate change will increasingly affect every species and everyone of us. For some there may be opportunities but for others there will be huge upheavals. Adaption is key to lessening the risks from climate change and that includes ensuring that wildlife has the space it needs to adapt too.

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