Climate change forcing species on the move

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

The report expresses with great confidence that in Europe one of the key impacts of climate change on wildlife will be changes in ranges, with species generally following warm weather north.

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

In Europe and the UK, naturalists have noted for several decades that the ranges of many species have generally moved north and uphill. Since the 1960s there have been a number of species, especially insects, that have colonized the UK from further south in Europe. In addition, there is some evidence that a number of species found at the southern end of the range in the UK, those found in the mountains or closer to the Arctic, have also moved north.

In little more than a quarter of a century, the little egret has colonized most of the UK. Image: Graham Madge.

pioneering work Climate Atlas of European Breeding Birds, published in 2008, produced a series of climate change projections for all bird species in Europe. He revealed that for the average bird species, the potential distribution by the end of this century will shift almost 550 km to the northeast, equivalent to the distance between Plymouth and Newcastle. The average bird range will also shrink in size by a fifth and will overlap the current range by just 40 percent. The atlas also showed that three-quarters of all bird species nesting in Europe are likely to experience a decline in range. As of 2008, climate projections for some of these species show continued decline or even extirpation in the UK.

Although there may be other factors at play, such as persecution and habitat loss, these projections are now increasingly coming true as wildlife are forced to move in response to a changing climate, if possible.

Through meticulous recording schemes, naturalists have noted the changing distributions of many species, with a general trend towards the north of the species’ ranges and some crossing the English Channel from Europe to colonize the UK.

Notable has been the expansion of the little egret, a white heron that is once again common in the Mediterranean. It is now a familiar inhabitant of much of Britain, especially the south. Before 1996, the Little Egret was only an occasional visitor to the UK with the first nests being recorded in Dorset. Today, the little egret is a familiar bird in any stretch of river, wetland or coastline. Several other herons have followed in their footsteps, including the great white egret and cattle egret, both of which are establishing themselves in the UK countryside.

Long-winged conehead

Long-winged Conehead. Image: Grahame Madge

The spread of ‘showy’ species like the little egret has been easy to observe, but mirroring their spread has been a multitude of smaller creatures whose changes in ranges have 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 recorded from the Midlands where it finds a similar climate.

medium wasp

Medium wasp. Image: Grahame Madge

Each year new species are recorded in Britain for the first time. The median wasp was first seen in the UK in Sussex in 1980, but can now be seen from north to north England.

Winged insects can fly in favorable breezes or find their way to new places under their own power. Upon reaching new areas they require suitable areas of habitat. The work of the Met Office Biodiversity Working Group has helped provide a refuge for colonizing species, including the little red-eyed damselfly, which was first recorded in the UK in 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 colonize 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 on Portland Bill. Image: 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 adapted to hot summers, typical of continental Europe. It used to nest in the UK, but has become extinct as a UK nesting bird. Although 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 blocking its recovery.

Climate change will increasingly affect all species and all of us. For some there may be opportunities, but for others there will be big changes. Adaptation is key to lessening the risks of climate change, and that includes ensuring that wildlife also have the space they need to adapt.

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