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Climate change threat to native wildlife

Capercaillies, dotterels and kittiwakes, pictured, are at risk. Picture: Contributed

Capercaillies, dotterels and kittiwakes, pictured, are at risk. Picture: Contributed

  • by ilona amos
 

GLOBAL warming could sound the death knell for some of Scotland’s wildlife and unique habitats, according to a major international report to be released tomorrow.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report will present the strongest evidence yet of the drastic negative effects of human activity on the world’s oceans and the threat to life on Earth.

It will warn that the impact of oxygen-starved seas, coastal erosion, changing seasons and the spread of invasive alien species could in turn wipe out countless species, or force them to migrate away from Scotland.

The second of a trilogy of reports from world-leading climate scientists will say that rising sea levels, extreme weather and acidic oceans could lead to mass extinctions and the permanent loss of vital ecosystems in many parts of the world, including Scotland.

Scotland’s coastal habitats and wildlife are already suffering from the effects of climate change. And this report is the first to single out the country’s rare machair grasslands as one of the habitats most at risk of irreversible damage.

Scotland’s internationally important peatlands and salt marshes, both of which act as valuable stores for climate-warming carbon dioxide, could also be destroyed.

Machair is unique to the British Isles and 70 per cent is located in western Scotland, but many parts have already been adversely hit by erosion and could be further devastated by rising sea levels and flooding.

Half a metre of machair is washed away every year on the Isle of Tiree, removing the life-support system for threatened wildlife such as the corncrake, ringed plover and great yellow bumblebee, while dry conditions on Coll in spring and summer of 2010 meant the machair did not flower.

The report has sparked calls for urgent action to curb emissions of greenhouse gases and halt the annihilation of Scotland’s natural assets.

Conservationists fear flooding, droughts, erosion and shifting seasons could result in key bird species being wiped out in Scotland. They say already threatened birds – including the dotterel, capercaillie and kittiwake – will face an even bigger fight for survival if efforts to save them are not stepped up.

“Some of our most special wildlife and habitats are suffering now from the impacts of a changing climate,” said Jim Densham, senior climate policy officer at conservation charity RSPB Scotland.

“The report is a wake-up call for all governments, including our own, to redouble efforts to halt climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Experts blame man-made climate change for a steep decline in kittiwakes breeding in Scotland, with warming seas affecting sand eels, their main food source. Numbers have fallen by nearly 70 per cent across the country, but populations in parts of Orkney have declined by up to 91 per cent.

Almost two-thirds of the UK population of dotterels, a bird that breeds only on the highest mountain tops of Scotland, are found in the Cairngorms, but figures show the total number of breeding males fell from 630 in 1999 to just 423 in 2011. It is feared rising temperatures could force the birds uphill, shrinking their habitats and leaving them short of food.

Warmer and wetter weather is also hampering the survival of capercaillie chicks.

Densham said the report highlights the need for immediate “decisive action” to take account of the shifting climate and help wildlife to adapt and survive the changes.

“This will need everyone – from government to each citizen – to take the threat seriously and to act,” he said.

“We must intervene to help nature where it is struggling now and where it will be challenged in the future. We must invest in our countryside, to make habitats healthy and resilient places, up to scratch for wildlife. A healthier environment can provide clean water, flood protection, food and many other benefits that we will need in a future Scotland.”

Protecting key habitats is vital not just for wildlife but also to counter global warming, according to a spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage, the caretaking body for the country’s nature.

“Our peatlands cover around 20 per cent of the land mass of Scotland and are a massive carbon sink, storing around 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon deposits,” he said.

“Restoration of these bog systems in Scotland will ease some of the effects of climate change by reducing the escape of greenhouse gases and increasing carbon capture and storage. And a healthy bog is more resilient to changing climate conditions than a degraded one.”

Climate change is an issue taken “extremely seriously” in Scotland, a spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said.

“That is why Scotland has set world-leading greenhouse gas emission reduction targets with detailed plans on how to meet them, and we are developing Scotland’s first statutory Climate Change Adaptation Programme to increase the resilience of Scotland’s people, environment and economy to the impacts of a changing climate.”

 

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