With Froglife’s attendance at COP26 quickly approaching, my thoughts have been directed towards the impact of climate change on our native reptile and amphibian species. Climate change has always loomed in my mind as the other ugly sibling of biodiversity loss, but it is the one I have never really given enough attention to, and certainly the one I understand less about. I imagine it is my line of work in habitat management and public engagement that has led to this bias; it has always seemed more pressing to me to focus on improving the plight of our dwindling wildlife, whether through good land management or working with the public to increase awareness. However, I know the two are inextricably linked and we cannot work on solving one of these issues without considering the other.
Dunford and Berry’s (2012) paper is an illuminating report on the effects climate change might have on the UK’s herpetofauna. The predictions on how the range and populations of certain species are mixed, but by and large the prognosis is poor if climate change continues on its current trajectory. Both reptiles and amphibians rely heavily on specific features within their environment, and even small changes in their habitat caused by climate change might have an impact. For example ponds, areas for thermoregulation, hibernation spots, and places to lay eggs are all needed within reasonable distance of each other to support different species. Whilst climate change will likely result in the disappearance of some of these features outright, it will also degrade them as well. It is this in particular that I want to explore: habitat degradation and how we can mitigate it in habitat management.
Recently, I have seen a lot of media coverage on the benefits of rewilding and restoring natural ecological processes. It is refreshing to see such public interest in environmental conservation, but I do worry that the continued need for talented land management is being overlooked. Where possible, rewilding of our native species should be explored and encouraged, but in some cases it is an idealistic pursuit. Many of our species, particularly reptiles and amphibians, rely on habitat in varying states of mid-succession (such as areas of long grass and scrub), and in many places it is only feasible to create and maintain these through artificial means. When we add climate change to the mix, land managers are now going to have to deal with even more problems and interactions than they currently do, and it is clear to me that we will still require excellent habitat management to deal with less than ideal quality. An example would be at Hampton Nature Reserve, a 300 acre Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and home to all of the widespread UK reptiles and a variety of amphibians. We manage the land here in such a way that it is still valuable for these species. Without the annual pond clearances and coppicing, the mosaic of water bodies which make it such a valuable habitat would cease to exist, and climate change would just accelerate his.
As habitat degrades due to climate change, reptiles and amphibians will also need to be able to move throughout the landscape to seek better alternatives. Although climate change might not directly affect habitat connectivity, it will certainly make it even more important than it already is. Reptiles in particular are notoriously poor colonisers, and even now, species such as the adder live in isolated pockets without the potential for movement. Again, it is down to land managers and owners to work in partnership with one another and invent creative and diplomatic ways of reconnecting our fragmented countryside. I hope COP26 will highlight the need to commit to greener economic solutions and move away from carbon-based energy sources, and by doing so we can perhaps avoid the worst of climate change. But the effects are already having an impact on our native wildlife and we will still require continued investment in habitat management to mitigate it.