10 UK species we might lose to climate change

As the climate changes so do many of the natural processes around the world, impacting most if not all organisms in some way or another. While some of the changes may be minimal and can be overcome as species adapt, others could lead to a total rewrite of food chains and ecosystems. For us in the UK these changes will likely include altered migration routes and dispersal patterns, possibly leading to many of our species looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Working together we can help our native species through wildlife conservation practices.

Here are 10 of the most likely species to disappear from our shores:

  1. Puffin

Puffins are somewhat of a British icon, from book publishers to cakes they are ever present across the UK in one form or another.  However that may soon change, at least for the living animal they are based on. Numbers of the species have been dropping rapidly over the last decade as food supplies for them dwindle. Changes in warm current flow around our coastline is altering the food chain from the bottom up, with lower plankton abundance having a knock-on effect on herring and sand eel populations, the primary food source for puffins and many other sea birds. This lack of food is limiting breeding success for puffins and could end up driving the species to other areas as sea currents change. 


3. Scottish crossbill

The Scottish crossbill is a sub-species of the crossbill that is not found anywhere else in the world. A historic separation from a common ancestor lead to the endemic species developing ot the specific conditions they found in their new home in Scotland. However, as the climate of the UK changes the species faces an increasing pressure to their survival. One study by the RSPB in 2017 listed the UK’s only unique bird species as having a “high likelihood” of extinction in the near future, with conditions changing to rapidly for the species to adapt. While many marine species may be forced to leave the UK as conditions change, it is likely that they will find a new home. Sadly this is not the case for this small and stocky bird, with predictions showing only Iceland will have suitable conditions. Unfortunately, years of adapting to a suitable environment here in the UK means that the species is no longer able to fly such long distances, meaning that if conditions for the species worsen too much the world might lose them completely. 

2. White beaked dolphin

Similarly, to puffins changing tides are affecting much of our marine life. Since 1990 the average temperature of our sea’s has gone up by 1 degree Celsius, a small change that is having a big impact. White beaked dolphins are a cold-water species that is common around the UK’s coast, but as sea temperatures rise they are being pushed further and further north to find suitable conditions. If temperatures continue to rise it is possible the species could migrate to colder areas around Scandinavia, although this depends on if their food source moves with them. It is unfortunately possible that due to climate change, this species could find itself without a suitable ecosystem anywhere causing a dramatic decline in their numbers.

4. High Brown Fritillary butterfly

Its not just big animals that are being impacted by climate change, with many insects feeling the pressure too. The high brown fritillary is the UK’s most critically endangered butterfly species, but ongoing conservation work has seen their numbers growing rapidly. From being on the verge of extinction in the early 2000’s their numbers have grown rapidly and new populations have started to appear outside of their strongholds in Lancashire and Devon. While these signs are promising for the short term there is still some worry that a changing climate will undo all of the hard work. Warmer weather earlier in the year is causing many species and plants to bloom or emerge earlier than they have done historically, in some cases before food or egg laying plants have finished developing.  The high brown only lays eggs once a year and as extreme habitat specialists do not benefit from extra breeding time and throws them out of seasonal synchrony with their restricted diet of violets. If variations continue to increase between their emergence time and food supply it could lead to the extinction of the species here in the UK. 

5. Osprey

Osprey are one of the largest birds of prey found in the UK and unlike other species feed almost exclusively on fresh water fish. Once driven to extinction they naturally returned from Scandinavia and with the help of a number of reintroductions and conservation have now established a stable population of around 200 pairs. However, climate change poses a big risk to these water dependent birds. Longer and drier periods between spring and summer are drying out many water sources or restricting the movement of many fish species, delaying their arrival at spawning grounds. In turn this restricted movement can make it difficult for Osprey to find enough food to feed young, lowering chick survival rates and posing a serious risk to the survival of the species in the UK. As a migratory bird they spend their winters in warmer areas like Africa before flying back to nest here in the UK, a return that is happening almost a month earlier than it was 20 years ago. If the climate shifts too much or food availably declines the species may simply not return on eyear, looking for more suitable areas to raise young further north. 

Image by Mathew Schwartz

Image by Matthew Schwartx from Unsplash

6. Cod 

As a cold-water species cod are particularly susceptible to the changes in water temperatures caused by climate change. Like many of our marine organisms it is predicted that the species move further north in coming years, but this poses a greater risk for the nations takeaway favourite. The species suffered a major collapse in the early 90’s as overfishing depleted local stocks to 1% of their historic population, leading to new legislation and protected areas being created. However, as the species distribution changes, it is likely that the majority of their populations will move away form these protected areas and into locations where large-scale commercial fishing may repeat the historic collapse. As such, it is possible that the UK will lose another species as a result of human activity and climate change.

7. Capercaillie 

Another species that was once hunted to extinction, the Capercaillie’s position in the UK has been precarious since its reintroduction in the 1830’s. As our climate changes it is predicted that Scotland will see an increased average rainfall, something that can be fatal for many ground nesting birds like Capercaillie, lapwing and Slavonian grebes. We are already seeing record breaking rainfall and floods across much of the UK, if these floods occur while species are trying to breed they could wash away nests and chicks. It is possible that the species can overcome single flooding events, but if they happen regularly enough, we could see a dramatic decline or even extinction as the population structure of the species becomes unbalanced. Unlike other species that migrate or travel large distances such as grebe’s or lapwings, this type of weather would be much more problematic for the sedentary Capercaillie who often stay within 10km of where they are born for their entire life. 

8. Bumblebee

Bumble bees are a key pollinator for many UK ecosystems but they too are at risk from climate change. For the 25 species of Bumblebee found in the UK, erratic weather caused by the changing climate could prove fatal, with wetter winters making flight harder and warm weather directly killing the temperature intolerant species. For most non-solitary bees, temperatures of 43 degrees Celsius are enough to outright kill individuals and even slight fluctuations can affect hive health. Bumblebees also exhibit a strange phenomenon that also puts them at a greater risk when compared to other species of insect. As butterflies move north to stay in the correct temperature range, bees do not. One study found that habitat loss, pesticide usage and climate change did little to alter distributions of 67 species over 110 years. It appears that once bees establish themselves in an area, they are there for life, whether its good for them or not. However, as the climate changes at an accelerated pace over the next decade, it is hopeful that the keystone species can adapt and follow the other insects north.

Image by Kai Wenzel

Image by Kai Wenzel from Unsplash

9. Basking Sharks

Another Marine species moving north is the UK’s biggest fish, the basking shark. Data collected for more than 20 years of public sightings of the species display a clear and largescale change in distribution as the sharks follow the cooler water north. Over the last two decades sightings in Scotland have almost doubled while at the same time those in the South of England have more than halved. The exact reasons for this shift are unknown, possibly due to changes in food availability like seabirds, or the direct changes in temperature of the currents they swim in. But what ever the cause it seems like the species may soon be leaving our shores as sea temperatures continue to rise around our coasts, looking for more suitable habitats elsewhere. However, this puts the species at greater risk of hunting from Scottish and Scandinavian fishermen who occasionally catch individuals that stray out of protected areas. 

10. Cuckoo 

Warmer than average temperatures are being attributed as a major cause of the collapses we are seeing in the UK cuckoo population. The ongoing 80% drop in numbers of the species is caused by a number of factors including habitat loss and farming intensification, but long dry summers are hitting our earthworm populations hard and reducing the amount of food available to many bird species. Cuckoo’s are particularly vulnerable due to their late and long distance migrations, arriving when many dry spells are already in full swing. Native species may be able to adapt and there is evidence of breeding happening earlier each year. But for the Cuckoo who unlike the osprey arrive around the same time each year, this is not currently happening. As such, if the species is unable to adapt it may become possible that individuals from the UK will have to emigrate to other areas or face severe food shortages. With changes in the UK’s climate predicted to accelerate over the next 20 – 30 years the Cuckoo may become another species the next generation will never see in the UK.  

Image by David Clode

Image by David Clode from Unsplash