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05 Dec 2017

Wetlands vital for birds as UK temperature rises by Colette Hall

Posted in Blog posts

Monitoring our birds has never been more important.

As bird populations grapple with increasing rates of change in their landscapes, predation and competition among other factors, there’s one undeniable issue that underpins it all.

Our climate is changing.

We already know some bird species are showing changes in numbers, distribution and timings of their migrations. However as temperatures are projected to increase further – making our summers drier and our winters wetter – many more may be forced to adapt their habits to accommodate these shifts.

We are in a race to understand what is happening to our birds, and why, so that we can help protect them. Some are already in decline from the increasing effects of climate change. Rare birds are more sensitive to change so we have to work out how we can help them. We know that many, such as our breeding common scoter, purple sandpiper, whimbrel, ruff, and pintail are already at risk of extinction in the UK, and this risk may increase as the climate becomes less suitable for them.

The State of the UK’s Birds (SUKB) annual report, out this week, pulls together all of the data collected over the years to help us establish trends of different bird populations.

The distribution and abundance of some waterbird species, such as goldeneye, in the UK is changing in response to climate change, with more birds wintering further east on the Continent as milder winters free up land and lakes.

In the UK, we have been monitoring our wetland birds extensively for decades, but in countries further east this is less well established as previously there was much less need for this. As such, there is now a need to help build capacity for waterbird monitoring in a number of eastern European countries so that we can continue to monitor them effectively. This is just as important for conservationists in the UK, as in order to direct any conservation action appropriately, we need to know what is happening elsewhere on a bird’s migratory route.

The protection of many of these migratory waterbirds is reinforced by a network of protected sites. As their distributions change, there is likely to be a need to designate new protected sites in the areas to where these birds have shifted.

But not all birds will be left high and dry. These new conditions will provide opportunities for other wetland birds such as cattle egret, night heron, little bittern, black-winged stilt and purple heron.

In fact, most of the species which have recently colonised the UK, or appear to be on the verge, are associated with wetlands.

Currently, many of these wetland habitats, comprising estuaries and much of our coastal wetlands, are protected by the EU’s Natura 2000 network – a collection of 27,000 sites across Europe and the largest coordinated arrangement of conservation areas in the world. With Brexit looming, it’s vital that we continue to protect these sites for wildlife after we leave.

As well as protecting these safe spaces, we have to create more of these environments if we’re to accommodate species which are taking advantage of the UK’s milder climate.

Thankfully some organisations have started taking action.

Examples include the recently created wetland landscape at Wallasea Island in Essex, developed by the RSPB to combat some effects of climate change, like flooding, while doubling up as a tidal habitat for birds. Similarly, WWT designed the Steart Marshes in Somerset to protect properties from rising sea levels and act as a safe home for wetland wildlife.

As part of our five-year strategy, WWT also aims to create, restore and manage larger wetlands across the UK.

We all have a role to play. By adjusting our behaviour slightly, we can limit the extreme effects of climate change and help our wildlife too.

By moving and inspiring people to engage with wetlands, WWT hopes to inspire our visitors to become active wetland supporters and protectors. By improving their experiences, and keeping people informed, WWT aims to encourage people to take their own direct action, which is either building their own pond or volunteering to clear up their local streams.

What is clear is that climate change is providing opportunities for some birds while making others more vulnerable and it is our responsibility to help protect the birds who shelter on our islands.

Continuing to monitor our birds’ behaviour as closely as we can is a crucial part of this, and the many volunteer bird watchers who contribute to surveys play a vitally important role, for which we are very grateful. With many conditions changing more rapidly than predicted, it’s quickly becoming a matter of life and death.