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Europe's birds face crisis from climate change

Last modified: 15 January 2008

Red grouse walking in Cairngorm National Park, Highlands, Scotland

A landmark advance in our understanding of the potential impacts of human-induced climate change on wildlife has been published today.

A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds - which maps potential changes in distribution of all of the continent's regularly occurring nesting birds – shows that we need urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and redouble our efforts for nature conservation, if we are to avoid calamitous impacts on birds.

The atlas shows 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. Alarmingly, the atlas shows that three quarters of all of Europe's nesting bird species are likely to suffer declines in range.

Setting species on a path to extinction

This potentially disastrous vision for the future of wildlife, which could set some species on a path to extinction, has hastened our calls for urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to help wildlife adapt to a rapidly warming world.

The estimates used in the atlas are based upon a model of climatic change which projects an increase of global average temperature of about three degrees Centigrade since pre-industrial times. We regards any rise above two degrees Centigrade as disastrous for wildlife and mankind.

The atlas has been written by Professors Brian Huntley, of Durham University, and Rhys Green, of the RSPB and the University of Cambridge, and Drs Yvonne Collingham and Steve Willis, both of Durham University.

The atlas shows 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.

Professor Rhys Green, an RSPB scientist and one of the authors said: 'Climatic change and wildlife's responses to it are difficult to forecast with any precision, but this study helps us to appreciate the magnitude and scope of possible impacts and to identify species at most risk and those in need of urgent help and protection.'

Professor Brian Huntley, of Durham University, said: ' Although the details both of future climatic changes and of species' responses to these changes remain uncertain, the potential magnitude of both is clear, and is such that the adaptation measures necessary to conserve European biodiversity only can be achieved through urgent international action.'

Conservation to become increasingly challenging

If the potential changes happen some species, including black-throated diver, snow bunting, capercaillie and dotterel, could be left with few areas of suitable climate in the UK. Without action to protect their populations now, and to ensure that they can find suitable habitat in future, this could significantly increase their risk of extinction.

It is imperative that efforts are increased to look after existing protected areas and to extend their coverage in the future to accommodate changes in potential distributions.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, said: 'We must heed the wake-up call provided by this atlas and act immediately to curb climate change. Anything above an average of two degrees Centigrade risks catastrophic impacts for wildlife.

'But some level of climate change is now inevitable and we must help wildlife become resilient to the worst impacts by increasing investment in creating larger areas for nature and making the countryside more wildlife-friendly to allow species to move to areas where the climate becomes suitable.

'These results show us that conservation is going to become increasingly challenging over the next 90 years and that we will need to do far more than we have achieved so far if we are to share our planet with species we have done for thousands of years.

Few winners

'The models show that the climate in southern Britain may allow the colonisation of more southerly species, such as the purple heron, scops owl, serin and hoopoe, now found in southern Europe. To enable these potential new colonists to gain a foothold we must prepare for their arrival by giving them the habitat they need and the freedom from persecution they deserve.'

Unfortunately, the atlas shows that for some birds confined to Europe, such as the Scottish crossbill and azure-winged magpie, there may be little or no overlap between their potential future range and their current one.

Unless we can help these species, by sustaining existing populations and providing opportunities for them to colonise new areas over long distances of potentially inhospitable terrain they may be at heightened risk of global extinction.

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Downloads

Birds on the move (834Kb)
A summary booklet introducing the climatic atlas of European breeding birds

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