A new study by scientists has warned that, if nothing is done, populations of the bird could be wiped out by the end of the century. Other moorland birds who feed on the insect, like the curlew, greenshank and dotterel, may also be at risk.
The mournful call of the golden plover characterises many of Scotland’s peatlands and mountain tops, where some 40,000 pairs are reckoned to breed. But previous studies have suggested that numbers have been in decline since the 1980s.
Now, research by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and experts from three universities has pinpointed one reason for the decline. For ten days after plover chicks are born, they depend upon a plentiful supply of craneflies, aka daddy longlegs, to survive.
But the number of craneflies has been dropping because fewer of their larvae have been surviving as summers get warmer. The average temperature in August has increased by 1.9 degrees centigrade since 1972.
The larvae are thought to need moist conditions to survive so when the peat dries out, they die. That means that there are fewer adult craneflies available for plover chicks to eat the following May and June, and so more of them die.
“This ongoing research suggests that some of our characteristic upland birds are particularly sensitive to increasing temperatures,” said Dr James Pearce-Higgins, a research biologist with RSPB Scotland. “If the current warming trend continues due to climate change, they may be locally threatened with extinction.”
Golden plovers pair for life, and share the rearing of their offspring between the sexes. Females incubate eggs during the night and feed in daylight, while males incubate eggs during the day and feed at night.
Pearce-Higgins pointed out that understanding how climate change was affecting wildlife would enable remedial action to be taken. “The RSPB is putting considerable effort into restoring damaged peatland habitats and blocking drainage ditches to raise water levels, to try and enable both craneflies and bird populations to better cope with rising temperatures,” he said.
“We need the government to commit to helping species such as this adapt to climate change by protecting and enhancing such vulnerable habitats. Whether this succeeds will in large part depend on our ability as a society to limit the extent of climate change to manageable levels.”
The RSPB encouraged the Scottish government to keep promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy to help reduce the pollution that is changing the climate. “As their own research shows, renewables targets can, and should, be met without affecting important wildlife sites,” added Pearce-Higgins.
His research was praised by Professor Des Thompson, a plover expert from the government’s nature conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage. “This is the first pointer that something is going wrong with upland ecosystems as far as the golden plover is concerned,” he said. “It could be catastrophic.”
The RSPB is a member of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, a coalition of more than 30 environment, development, faith, community and other groups with at least 1.5 million supporters. The coalition’s campaign for tougher action to cut climate pollution is being backed by the Sunday Herald.
“This is just one example of how wildlife that is already stressed will be ill-equipped to cope with climate change,” said Mike Robinson, who chairs Stop Climate Chaos Scotland.
“It’s important that the Scottish climate change bill results in adequate resources and effort being directed to improve the resilience of Scottish wildlife in the face of climate change.”
The Scottish environment minister, Michael Russell, revealed that there had been over 14,000 responses so far to the public consultation on the climate change bill. The consultation closes this Wednesday.
“We have committed to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050,” Russell told a meeting in Biggar yesterday. “Climate change is one of the most serious threats we face. Scotland will play its part in rising to this global challenge.”
WHAT THE STOP CLIMATE CHAOS SCOTLAND COALITION WANTS
Stop Climate Chaos Scotland is campaigning to ensure that the Scottish government keeps its manifesto commitment to a climate change bill with mandatory greenhouse gas reduction targets of three per cent a year and a 2050 reduction target of 80%. The campaign is being supported by the Sunday Herald.
Stop Climate Chaos Scotland is calling for the government’s climate change bill to include:
- the principle that Scotland should make an equitable contribution to global efforts to keep average temperature rises below two degrees centigrade
- at least 80% cuts in greenhouse gases on 1990 levels by 2050
- annual budgets to ensure reductions of at least three per cent per annum
- the inclusion of emissions from aviation and shipping
- a commitment to provide climate adaptation funding in addition to, and not at the expense of, the aid budget