Temperature rise could spell disaster for British wildlife

Posted: Monday 8th February 2010

Southern rivers empty of trout and salmon, waterways choked with alien fast-growing plants and the decline of migratory birds could all be consequences of temperature rise in the UK.

According to research by the Environment Agency, fish, invertebrates and other water species will be the first to feel the devastating effects of climate change as river temperatures rise, and more frequent flooding and drought change traditional river habitats.

Iconic fish species such as Atlantic salmon and trout, which need cold water to thrive, may struggle to survive. As river temperatures have risen, there is evidence that they are already declining in the warmer estuaries and rivers in the south of England. Invertebrates, which form an integral part of the aquatic food chain, are also under threat, with numbers falling by around 20 per cent for every one degree rise in temperature in sensitive upland streams.

While some native plants and animals decline with increasing temperatures, foreign species could spread rapidly, killing off native species and habitats, and even causing flooding. African Clawed Toads, which carry a fungus lethal to other amphibians and eat the fry of our native fish, already have small colonies in England and Wales. If temperatures continue to rise as predicted, this species could breed and spread easily throughout the UK.

Fast growing plants such as South American water primrose could take over Britain’s waterways helped by warmer temperatures, impeding water flow and increasing flooding. And without the colder temperatures that keep them in check, some alien fish species could become pests, crowding out other fish popular with anglers and even destroying habitat.

Climate change is also causing sea levels to rise, destroying areas of salt marshes and mudflats that migrating birds such as redshank, plovers and wildfowl have used for centuries as a winter refuge.

Lord Chris Smith, chairman at the Environment Agency said: “There is a danger that we think of climate change as something that is happening in other countries. But it’s not just polar bears and rainforests that are at risk.

“What we see in our rivers, gardens, seas and skies here in the UK is already changing and delays in reducing harmful green house gas emissions will lead to more severe impacts. There is an urgent need for all countries to limit their emissions to avoid the disastrous consequences of a four degree global temperature rise.”

Professor Steve Ormerod, of Cardiff University School of Biosciences said: "Rivers and streams, particularly in the cooler uplands of Britain, are extremely sensitive to climate change because rising temperature and altered rainfall affect them directly.

“Our own studies in Welsh streams show that temperatures have risen by almost two degrees over the last 25 years and these changes appear to have affected river insects, whose numbers have fallen by around 20% for every one degree rise. Knock-on effects are inevitable for the fish, birds and bats that use river insects as food."

The Environment Agency continues to work to protect people and the environment from the effects of climate change. This year water quality improved for the nineteenth year in a row, supporting species vulnerable to climate change such as salmon, eels and sea trout.

The Agency is also working to compensate for habitat loss due to sea level rise. Schemes such as the Alkborough Flats in the Humber estuary, which replaces more than 150 hectares of wetland habitat as part of a flood defence scheme, are being developed in response to the loss of salt marsh and mud flats.

Eradication plans are in place for the invasive Water Primrose plant and the African clawed toad, to prevent the damage to wildlife and habitat these species could cause if left unchecked.

When the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme (CRC) comes into force and aviation is included in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), some 48 per cent of all UK carbon emissions will come from industries regulated by the Environment Agency.

By running the EU ETS and CRC efficiently, and by promoting the use of low carbon technologies, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage, the Environment Agency will have a key role to play in making sure that the UK meets its ambitious carbon reduction targets by 2050.




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