By HM Government

Two reports published today will help to target future conservation management by identifying climate change ‘refugia’. These are localised areas – like hills, valleys, moors and mountains – with specific environmental conditions that could allow wildlife to survive, despite climate change making the surrounding areas less suitable.

‘Climate change refugia for the flora and fauna of England’ describes and maps the location of these sites in existence today.

‘Palaeoecological evidence to inform identification of potential climatic change refugia and areas for ecological restoration’ considers how data on past environmental change, from peat bogs and lake sediments, can help us understand where refugia have been present in the landscape since the last Ice Age.

Together, the reports identify areas which are vulnerable to climate change and those areas which are more climatically stable and so offer protection to wildlife, making them a priority for conservation efforts.

Areas were pinpointed by modelling the survival and extinction of over 1,000 species that had reduced their range over the past 4 decades, against the environmental conditions found on localised areas like slopes and valleys, thought likely to moderate the effects of a changing climate.

The results indicated that:

  • local extinctions have been higher in parts of England that have experienced greater climatic change in recent decades
  • local landscapes which influence the microclimate have provided a buffer against broader scale climatic changes, and enhance the survival of many species in these areas – they prove that the concept of refugia, a well-established feature of the last Ice Age is also relevant to a warming climate.

Different types of species were sensitive to different aspects of the environment. Plant persistence reduced in regions with greater summer warming, but this was moderated by variability in landform: slope, aspect and elevation.

Beetles were affected by changes in rainfall and variability in moisture levels, while persistence in other invertebrate groups such as butterflies and moths, showed stronger relationships with changes in summer temperature, modified by variations in the landscape.

The report also demonstrates the effectiveness of protected sites such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest as refugia.

Dr Mike Morecroft, Natural England Principal Specialist for Climate Change said:

We are building up a picture of where species are most likely to be able to persist under climate change. This is a good example of how science can help us to target our conservation efforts to best effect.

Dr Andrew Suggitt, from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute, said:

Climate change is already having a noticeable impact on our wildlife, and for many of these plants and animals, the future impact of rising temperatures is likely to be negative. Our research identifies the locations- known as refugia – which have buffered species from adverse changes in climate, and we hope this will be useful for wildlife conservation efforts.

The models of species persistence have been used to provide maps of potential refugia in England, which will now be used to inform Natural England’s work.

The reports can be found on Natural England’s publications website.


Notes for editors

For further information (Media only) contact:
Ellen Softley, Natural England press office: 0300 060 0213/ 07990 804795 ; or David Hirst on 0300 060 1720/ 07827 821679

About the project:

The refugia project was established by Natural England in partnership with the University of Exeter and other partners to target conservation action in England and establish resilient networks that address climate change.

A well-established feature of the last glaciation, and harbouring many of the warm-adapted plants and animals occupying England today, refugia are vital to helping our wildlife adapt to a changing climate.

The project is being continued through a NERC funded Knowledge Exchange project led by the University of Exeter, which aims to produce practical advice for conservation practitioners about taking microclimate into consideration in conservation planning and management.

A literature review was used to identify properties of the landscape likely to contribute to ‘refugium potential’. These sites were modelled at 100 m resolution for England, and summarised at the scale of 10 x 10 km grid squares. Maps are presented showing variation in these properties, as well as variation in rates of change in temperature, precipitation and snow cover.

Using data from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s Biological Records Centre, the persistence (or extinction) of 1,082 species that retracted their range over the past four decades was modelled against these environmental properties.

After controlling for the effects of recorder effort and agricultural intensity, there were strong indications that rates of population persistence were influenced both by rates of climate change, and by microclimatic variability.

The availability of millions of species records collected by an army of volunteer naturalists can help scientists understand how landscape features can help to safeguard species.

About Natural England

Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. Established in 2006, our work is focused on enhancing England’s wildlife and landscapes and maximising the benefits they bring to the public.

  • we establish and care for England’s main wildlife and geological sites, ensuring that over 4,000 National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest are looked after and improved
  • we work to ensure that England’s landscapes are effectively protected, designating England’s National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and advising on their conservation
  • we run England’s Environmental Stewardship green farming schemes that deliver over £400 million a year to farmers and landowners, enabling them to enhance the natural environment across two thirds of England’s farmland
  • we fund, manage, and provide scientific expertise for hundreds of conservation projects each year, improving the prospects for thousands of England’s species and habitats
  • we promote access to the wider countryside, helping establish National Trails and coastal trails and ensuring that the public can enjoy and benefit from them

For further information see Natural England’s website. Twitter:@NaturalEngland

About the University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 19,000 students and is ranked 7th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, 10th in The Complete University Guide and 12th in the Guardian University Guide 2014. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 90% of the University’s research was rated as being at internationally recognised levels and 16 of its 31 subjects are ranked in the top 10, with 27 subjects ranked in the top 20. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the last few years; including landmark new student services centres – the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for another £330 million of investment between now and 2016.

For further information:
University of Exeter Press Office
+44 (0)1392 722405 or 722062