Page last updated at 16:06 GMT, Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Big changes ahead for Britain's birds

Three-quarters of Europe's nesting birds will see their ranges shrink by 2100 as temperature rises push them northeast, the Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds claims. Our environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee has been to a reserve in southeast England which sees many passing continental birds.

Hoopoe at nest hole - Richard Brooks (rspb-images.com)
The hoopoe could be an exotic immigrant
"On a clear day, you can see France," says the RSPB's Grahame Madge, as we both peer through the rain-lashed windscreen, summoning up the courage to go outside.

Opening the door against the wind is a challenge, but one we just about meet without trapping layers of waterproof clothing.

It is almost always the case that when, as a journalist, you carefully set up a location to highlight a report on climate change, or drought, the weather will laugh in your face.

I've been to southern Spain in August to film a solar power research institute against a leaden sky.

I've talked to community leaders and water company officials about the need for new reservoirs in the parched South East whilst sheltering in the eaves of a village hall, in rain that was beating down so hard we could hardly hear ourselves talk.

Kent (BBC)
Here, we were in Dungeness, near the RSPB's nature reserve, to discuss the Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds, which maps potential changes in distribution of all of the continent's regularly occurring nesting birds.

The atlas shows that for the average bird species the potential distribution by the end of this century will shift nearly 350 miles (560km) northeast, equivalent to the distance from Plymouth to Newcastle.

It suggests that exotic occasional visitors, like the hoopoe, will, in decades to come, become a familiar part of British gardens.

With its pinkish-brown body, black and white wings and long, downcurved bill, the hoopoe is an accidental visitor to these shores, living more commonly in continental Europe, northwest Africa and the Middle East.

Dungeness, so close to France, could be one of the first places in Britain where it makes a permanent home.

Redshank feeding in shallow water - Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
The redshank could retreat north in the UK
But imagining any bird used to such balmy climes spending much time here - as we stood there with a gale force wind driving stingingly cold rain into our faces - did take quite a leap of imagination.

We took shelter in the shadow of the RNLI station building, watching the steely clouds whip across the sky, matched by the turbulent grey-green sea.

As the station flag whipped and cracked in the wind, we struggled to see any birdlife - they, quite sensibly, were taking shelter too.

But the RSPB says this map makes a deadly serious point, and shows how dramatically our skies could change as birds like the puffin, red grouse, peregrine and common gull could become extinct in parts of the UK in years to come.

Serin, male, drinking at pool - Roger Tidman (rspb-images.com)
The serin is another which could become more common in Britain
But a lot of this research is based on predictions of temperature rises towards the end of the century. Don't we have more to worry about than the birds?

"If temperature rises affect birds, they will affect humans, too," says Mr Madge.

He hopes the map will be a "wake-up call", a sign that climate change will have dramatic effects on what we consider to be British wildlife.

He says he intends to head on to the reserve itself to continue our wildlife quest. I, however, scurry for shelter - and a cup of tea.


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