Restoring habitats could save a fifth of species from climate risks, says report

A massive increase in restoring and connecting habitats is needed to help save wildlife forced to move because of climate change, campaigners urge.

Nature group Rewilding Britain estimates the country’s “climate zones” – made up of the climatic conditions of an area – are shifting by up to 5km (3 miles) a year due to temperatures rises driven by human activity.

That is far faster than many species of plants and animals which are adapted to live within those zones can shift their ranges, putting them at risk of population declines and even extinctions, it warns.

But restoring habitats across 30% of Britain’s land and sea by 2030 could help save a fifth of species from habitat loss, declines or extinctions, according to a report by the organisation that draws on existing research.

It is calling for the creation of core “rewilding” areas covering 5% of Britain, which would mean large-scale restoration of natural processes and systems where nature can take care of itself.

Beaver reintroduction
Rewilding could include reintroducing key species such as beavers (Ben Birchall/PA)

This could include allowing woodland to regenerate naturally, returning areas to a more natural state through removing dams on rivers or rewetting drained peatbogs and reintroducing key species such as beavers or birds of prey.

The report calls for the rewilding areas to be embedded in a mosaic of nature-friendly land and marine uses across another 25% of Britain, which will create corridors that plants and animals can move through in response to climate change.

These areas need to provide quality habitats for wildlife and prioritise land uses such as low-impact forestry, nature-based tourism and wildlife-friendly farming for which the Government provides financial incentives.

They may also need to involve measures such as green bridges over major roads to help wildlife move.

Rewilding Britain’s report warns British wildlife is already severely depleted and in no fit state to withstand the shock of current and future climate change, with rising temperatures and sea levels, fires, floods and drought.

A first step is to improve the state of existing wildlife sites to ensure they have thriving wildlife populations that can withstand and adapt to changing conditions. But this is not enough on its own, the study said.

The network of nature reserves and protected areas across Britain is too small and fragmented to support species on the move. And in the future they may no longer be in the right climate zone for some of the species they safeguard.

Creating the rewilding areas and natural corridors will allow wild plants and animals to move in response to their climate zones moving north. It will also allow them to move to higher elevations such as further into upland landscapes.

These more natural landscapes would also absorb carbon, helping to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, Rewilding Britain said.

Rebecca Wrigley, the organisation’s chief executive said: “We urgently need to kick-start a new era of rewilding and nature restoration to match the growing tsunami of climate heating and species extinction.

“Our report is a rallying call for coordinated, locally-led action from communities, farmers, businesses, big landowners, volunteer groups, local authorities and national governments to help build a better, more resilient future by rapidly expanding nature’s recovery.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently pledged to ensure that 30% of UK’s land is protected for nature by 2030.

But conservationists warn that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty designations are included in the Government’s calculations on protected areas, much of whose land is devoted to conventional farming or other uses which do little for, or harm, nature.

An Environment Department (Defra) spokesperson said: “This report has highlighted that there are huge ongoing pressures on the country’s biodiversity, which is why we must continue to act to restore and enhance nature.”

The spokesperson pointed to the Government’s commitment to create, restore and better connect more than 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat, action to improve protected sites and new funding and legislation for nature.

“Nature matters, and we are committed to being world leaders in protecting and restoring the environment for future generations,” they said.

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