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Wednesday, September 15, 1999 Published at 00:54 GMT 01:54 UK


Wildlife retreats as climate warms

Changing climate means oak trees are coming into leaf earlier than before

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

British conservation experts say climate change is already affecting plants, animals and birds, which are seeking to move beyond its reach.

Five groups have produced a report on the implications of what is happening. It is entitled "No place to go? The impact of climate change on wildlife".

The groups are the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the World Wide Fund for Nature-UK, English Nature, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and the consultancy ERM (Environmental Resources Management).

No effect likely

Their report is being presented to a conference on climate change and wildlife at the University of East Anglia on 16 and 17 September.

The report says: "Human-induced climate change is already happening. The surface of the earth is about 0.6 degrees C warmer than it was 100 years ago". It dismisses the prospect of any early solution.

"The 5% emission reduction commitments (for developed countries) will have little or no discernible effect on climate change."

[ image: Butterflies are migrating - where they can]
Butterflies are migrating - where they can
This is important for wildlife in several ways. Many species, for instance, depend on natural signals like temperature or day length to time their life cycles.

If climate change alters the signals, the timing of the species' life cycles will change too.

Scientists have already found that the average growing season in Europe is nearly 11 days longer than it was 30 years ago - six days longer in spring, and almost five in autumn.

Proving the point

And as the temperature rises, species will move out of its way - in the northern hemisphere, this will normally mean moving northwards, or upwards in altitude, where any movement is possible.

A study of 57 European butterfly species this century has shown this general northward and upwards migration, consistent with warming trends.

But the report says there is a limit to the ability of species to move out of harm's way.

In some cases they cannot move fast enough. In others there is no suitable habitat for them to migrate to.

The five groups say the onset of climate change will require profound changes at strategic level.

New reserves

"Current conservation policy does not consider the effects of climate change on wildlife, habitats and natural processes.

"Protecting particular sites will remain essential to nature conservation, but will be insufficient on its own. More conservation areas will be needed.

"The concept of translocation, whereby a species is introduced at another site to compensate for possible local extinctions, must be considered."

[ image: Some species have nowhere to go to]
Some species have nowhere to go to
Dr Duncan Huggett, of the RSPB, told BBC News Online: "It's a terrible thing for a conservationist to have to trade off one type of habitat against another - but that's exactly what we're being told to do."

"We must start creating new habitats to replace those already being lost, as well as provide safe corridors and stepping stones of habitat.

"But this won't be easy. We are entering the unknown here."

The RSPB argues for a straightforwardly interventionist approach, helping species to cope with climate change, and says it has "a sometimes lively dialogue" with those who believe nature should be allowed to take its course.

Dr Mike Harley, of English Nature, the government's wildlife advisers, told BBC News Online: "The jury's out."

"We're trying to establish the impacts, and we have commissioned research. That may suggest different remedies for different species, on different types of habitat."

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