State of change: is nature the answer?

Guide
Aerial view of Wallasea island at high tide

As humanity reels from ever-increasing flood, wildfires and drought, global leaders meet to discuss the future. But how is climate change impacting the birds and wildlife around us right now - and how can we turn the tide, together? This series of stories explores the threats we face, along with natural solutions to the crisis, and is based on a feature in the latest issue of Nature's Home, the magazine for RSPB members.

Aerial view of Wallasea island at high tide

Part one and part two of our State of Change series looked at some of the most imminent threats to our beloved wildlife. In the third part of our series, writer Adam Marek investigates how we help wildlife adapt to the changing climate, and how nature can provide solutions. 

Classic conservation, fit for the future

Malcolm Ausden, the RSPB’s Principal Ecologist, says there are two main things we need to do to help species adapt to the changing climate. “We need to maintain and create good habitat for wildlife so it’s easier for species to colonise new areas. And we need to reduce other pressures, such as persecution or disturbance.” He’s talking about good old-fashioned conservation. 

Every day, RSPB researchers are learning more about nature’s response to the changing climate. And they’re using this knowledge to develop new ways to help wildlife side-step the imminent threat.

It’s rewetting peatlands that have been drained for forestry. It’s putting former wetlands back where they were lost to farmland. It’s protecting and regenerating ancient forests with native trees where they’ve become degraded over time and lost their value to wildlife.

“We need to maintain and create good habitat for wildlife so it’s easier for species to colonise new areas. And we need to reduce other pressures, such as persecution or disturbance.”

It’s using 21st-century tracking technology to discover the places that migrant birds like turtle doves need along their flyway to survive the journey. It’s the delicate work of telling people politely not to walk over the area where the little terns are nesting because they’re tender souls that will quit the nest and not return if given a fright.

It’s standing up to developers wanting to pour concrete on heathlands. It’s guarding the birds of prey under threat from those gamekeepers who break the law. In short, it’s the stuff that the RSPB does day in, day out, because of your support.

Except it needs to be more, much more. The RSPB’s ambition needs to be shared by more people. Governments need to get this ambitious.

And this is what the RSPB is hoping to see happen at two major UN summits: the Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow, known as COP26, this November, and the delayed Convention on Biological Diversity now due to take place in China next year.

"We need solutions, in policy and in practice, that work for nature and climate, often referred to as 'nature-based solutions'"

Governments from around the world will be bringing forward ambitious targets and new frameworks to deliver them. However, a major new report out in June this year from top global scientists working on biodiversity loss and climate change highlighted that these two environmental crises must be tackled together. RSPB staff attending these summits will be underlining this to negotiators and seeking to secure commitments from global governments to connect the two UN Conventions and the action that they will be delivering.

We need solutions, in policy and in practice, that work for nature and climate, often referred to as “nature-based solutions”. These are the win-wins for people and planet, protecting and restoring nature while reducing the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and thereby helping slow the rise in temperature.

Nature-based solutions

By creating more coastal habitat such as RSPB Wallasea Island nature reserve in Essex, we improve the UK’s flood defences against rising sea-levels as well as providing vital pitstops for migrating sandpipers and godwits. By restoring critical carbon stores like upland peatlands (as we’ve been doing in partnership with United Utilities at RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District) we improve water quality for surrounding populations, while helping dunlins and golden plovers to thrive. And by recreating wetland on drained peat farmland, as we’ve done at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, we’ve helped reduce CO2 emissions from drying peat while also providing habitat for bitterns, cranes and many other wetland species. This is the kind of change the world needs, big time.

Advance of the herons

To see how successful habitat creation can be for species needing to expand their range, you need only look at the recent influx of egrets, ibises and herons from the continent to wetland nature reserves. I regularly see great white egrets and a glossy ibis at Dungeness. Jonathan Taylor, Senior Site Manager at the RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, tells me they had 40 great white egrets this winter, when the reserve’s previous record was seven. They also had seven glossy ibises and six cattle egrets summering at the reserve.

"To see how successful habitat creation can be for species needing to expand their range, you need only look at the recent influx of egrets, ibises and herons..."

Great white egrets, cattle egrets, glossy ibises, spoonbills, little bitterns, night herons, purple herons – all of these species are colonising or recolonising the UK, or appear on the verge of doing so. Notably all, or virtually all, of their breeding attempts have been on nature reserves, and particularly on recently created wetland habitat. If RSPB supporters hadn’t enabled conservationists to create a home for them, they’d have nowhere to go. And their numbers look set to increase, as droughts in southern Europe appear to be helping drive the march of some of these species to our shores. But right now we don’t have enough wetlands in the UK of a large enough size to support the numbers that are heading our way.

What Sci-Fi can teach us about climate change 

As a writer of futuristic fiction, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. Looking at what’s happening now, and the general trends, the future looks worrying for much of the UK’s wildlife, and therefore for us. But the future is not set in stone. Far from it. Places like Wallasea Island, Lakenheath Fen and Dove Stone demonstrate what’s possible when we create the right conditions for wildlife.

"...the future is not set in stone. Far from it."

And if you’ve watched or read any time-travel stories, you’ll know that if you visit the past and change even the tiniest thing, it can create a radically different future. Likewise, the things that each of us does, however small, change the future in some way. Whether we rewild an area of our gardens or encourage our local council to do the same, write to our elected representatives urging them to act now for nature and climate change, or support the work of conservation organisations like the RSPB, with every action we take, we rewrite the future. Collectively, we as a species wrote the present we’re in now. Collectively, we can write a different one. So let’s pick up our pens, and start creating.