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AS A new year opens, it is perhaps a good time to take stock of some of changes in Britain’s nature where climate change is just one major factor radically reshuffling wildlife.
Up and down the country some species are disappearing, but there is some good news too as new migrants and old friends return to make their home on our shores.
The climate changes are also causing wildlife to modify crucial timings of their lives.
The State of the UK’s Birds report for 2017 is just one of the reports that spells out some of the huge impacts of global warming on Britain’s bird life, which is set to become even greater in the future.
Average temperatures in Britain have increased by almost 1°C in recent decades and familiar birds like swallows, which migrate to Africa every autumn, have responded by leaving up to four weeks later. Others, such as garden warblers and whitethroats, are also enjoying the warmer weather for longer.
Migratory birds are also arriving and breeding earlier in the spring than in the 1960s, but even permanent residents, like the great tit, are laying their eggs 11 days earlier than 40 years ago.
Increasing temperatures and wetter winters mean some short-distance migratory birds give up their journeys entirely and remain here all year round — for instance, breeding numbers of blackcaps and chiffchaffs have both more than doubled since 1970.
More exotic swans, Bewicks and whoopers are simply staying on the washes of our fenlands all year. Little egrets are becoming far more common and have been seen in more northern latitudes.
Cattle and greater egrets too are being spotted more often.
Cormorants have now two distinct tribes. One that stays here all year has moved further inland to permanently occupy lakes and canals. Another, a larger group but still the same species, visit from the continent annually.
The other side of the coin is that warmer conditions are posing a serious risk of extinction for many birds of the north. Dotterel, whimbrel (above) and common scoter have all experienced significant falls in numbers.
In August, a flock of the extremely rare bee-eaters made a brave attempt to breed in a Nottinghamshire quarry but sadly all three nests failed to produce viable chicks.
Bee-eaters have only attempted to breed five times in the past decade, resulting in hatched eggs in just three cases.
A combination of poor weather, leading to a lack of insects to feed the fledglings, and predators such as sparrow hawks, kestrels and foxes all contributed to the failure.
Meanwhile, in the south of the country, species such as quail, little egret and hobby have increased in numbers. Others, including the little bittern and the zitting cisticola, a previously very rare fantail warbler may colonise the south in coming years.
Our own larger bittern is already showing great increases in population and the legendary bittern’s boom is now much more commonly heard over our reed beds and marshes.
As long as I have been studying and writing about British reptiles, I have known that Britain is home to three kinds of wild snake. Now it seems there are four and have always been four.
The newly identified species is the barred grass snake, Natrix Helvetica (left). It is now recognised as a species in its own right distinct from the common or eastern grass snake (Natrix natrix).
Grass snakes, which grow to more than one metre (3ft) in length, live near water and mainly feed on amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts.
We now know that the barred grass snake is more greyish in colour than its olive green cousin and lacks its most striking feature, a bright yellow collar while the dark bands along the body are much more pronounced than in their common cousin.
Not actually a new British species the curled octopus (above), which grows to a length of 50cm, was seen on three consecutive nights at New Quay beach in Ceredigion.
Dozens of these two-foot-long octopuses have been spotted emerging from the ocean and crawling along the Welsh coast in an unusual nightly pilgrimage. Why? Well, nobody seems to know.
Other unusual marine animals are becoming more numerous in the warming seas of Britain. Basking sharks, the second biggest fish in the world, are seen in larger numbers. Some species of edible blue-fin tuna, many rare turtles and increasing numbers of whales and smaller sea mammals are spotted off our coasts.
Squid and anchovies are being caught in British waters in large numbers, according to a major new report for the UK Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP).
However, the report also confirmed that bird populations such as puffins, fulmars, terns and razorbills are being harmed as the fish they rely on are driven north or deeper as waters warm.
Squid were seen in the North Sea only occasionally in the past, but their numbers have recently increased dramatically, according to the report, with thousands of tonnes now caught each year and, while much is exported, it is far more popular now with British fish eaters.
The State of the UK’s Birds report is produced by the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, together with statutory UK nature conservation bodies including Natural England. It concludes that climate change is undoubtedly going to be one of the greatest influences, both positive and negative, on the future status of birds, animals, plants and other biodiversity in Britain.
We all need to work together and put pressure on Environment Secretary Michael Gove to make sure wildlife habitats are both expanded and better protected to help species survive extreme weather and help them spread to newly created suitable areas.
For some species climate change will provide opportunities to increase and expand provided the right habitat is there, while others will be vulnerable, increasing their risk of extinction.
The final result is up to us.
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