Our woods and their wildlife: symptoms of a planet under pressure

It’s felt more like summer than spring recently. Basking in such unseasonal temperatures has been so enjoyable, it feels churlish to put a damper on things by mentioning climate change.

Where will all our wildlife go?

However, recent European research has shown some worrying trends. Birds and butterflies are some of our most mobile animal species and might be expected to move to remain within a suitable temperature range. Researchers have found that, while this does appear to be happening, they are failing to keep pace with changing temperatures, lagging between 212 km (birds) and 135 km (butterflies) behind climate changes.

In addition, communities of birds and butterflies are adapting at different rates, which means that the delicate balance of ecological interactions between species is being disrupted. This is not just bad news for wildlife, but also for us, as we depend on natural systems as a whole continuing to function for delivery of vital ecosystem services.

Last spring, our Nature’s Calendar project had some record breaking results, with many natural events earlier than any other year this century, and some earlier than ever recorded before on our database. It’s far too soon to have results from this spring, but given the weather, it would not be surprising if we saw similar trends.

For trees and woods, climate change poses significant threats. Also in the news this week, foresters are planting trial plots of trees imported from other parts of Europe, even other parts of the world, to see how they fare as the climate changes, in case our own native strains of these trees fail. One of the difficulties of climate change is the complexity of trying to model what will happen, and how things will respond. For trees and woods, the long timescales involved in growing trees makes it even harder.

So, while at the Woodland Trust we continue to believe it is right to plant trees native to the UK, we can see the value in these trials. With a multitude of pressures on our native trees, woods and forests, and the difficulty of understanding how these will all interact with each other, it’s important to have as much information as possible. As we highlighted in the State of the UK’s Forests report last year, we need to do everything we can to build resilience in our woodland resource for the future.

But we also need concerted action at a global level. This week, experts from all over the world have gathered in London for the Planet Under Pressure conference, to consider the outlook for the future in this “Anthropocene” epoch – so named because it is characterised and shaped so strongly by the influence of human beings. The conference is an opportunity for scientists and policy makers to mull over what needs to be done in the run up to the Rio+20 summit this summer.

The State of the Planet declaration issued by the conference co-chairs makes rather stark reading, stating:

Will we be able to feed the burgeoning human population?

“Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale…..

“ While some progress has been made in addressing global environmental issues, poverty alleviation and food, water, energy and human security, the scale of actions has not been commensurate with the scale of the problems. The issues to be debated at Rio+20 are the same as those identified 20 years ago, but it is now even more urgent to address them”.

A distant ideal of sustainable development is no longer enough, it says; we take a substantial risk by delaying. It calls for strong leadership at the UN’s Rio+20 conference, for the world’s decision makers to ensure that conference is a defining moment in history, sparking global innovation to tackle the problems facing us.

Inspiring stuff – I hope they are listening.

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser

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About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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