Birdfall and dehydrated hedgehogs: Heatwave wreaks havoc on UK wildlife

Animal rescue centers received a glut of calls, birds fell from the sky and nature reserves burned as UK wildlife cooked during last week’s heatwave.

Conservationists said the animals were eerily still as they tried to shelter from the heat. Experts fear record high temperatures could cause a further crash in insect numbers, with bumblebees and butterflies among the hardest hit.

Dehydrated hedgehogs, baby birds, foxes and garter snakes are among the victims helped by the RSPCA, which warned the extent of damage caused by heat stress in the 40C (104F) conditions was vast. “Our emergency call center is receiving many more calls than usual. On Monday we received 7,186 calls to our helpline compared to 4,416 on Sunday, which is a big increase,” said RSPCA Wildlife Department Science Officer Evie Button.

There were reports of swifts falling from the sky in London, and Oxfordshire Wildlife Rescue near Didcot said it could no longer take animals after the heat wave increased the number of casualties. hide when they’re sick or injured,” Button said. “It’s often only when they’re in really bad shape that people see them and call us. So much of the impact will be hidden.

Hilltop at Wild Ken Hill with a long strip of scorched earth
Wild Ken Hill Nature Reserve near Snettisham, Norfolk, where 33 hectares were destroyed by wildfires last week. Photography: Andrew Waddison

Among the most dramatic events was a forest fire at the Wild Ken Hill Reserve in Norfolk, where 33 hectares (82 acres) of thorny scrub caught fire, with nesting territories of doves, grasshopper warblers and reed warblers destroyed. Reptiles and amphibians would have burned, while most birds would have escaped – except for those that nest late in the season, experts said. “I saw birds come back in the flames. I think the maternal instinct is pretty strong,” project manager Dominic Buscall said. “I fear it will happen again this year. It’s incredibly dry, we have no rain forecast this week and it’s only mid-July,” he added.

What is happening in the UK is part of a bigger picture, with heat waves becoming more frequent as the climate crisis deepens. Across Europe in recent days, land has been scorched and fires have broken out in a number of countries, including Spain, Greece and France. With heat waves expected to become 12 times more frequent by 2040 compared to pre-warming levels, animals around the world are changing their behavior to adapt. For example, research shows that grizzly bears in Alberta, Canada seek more closed and shaded vegetation to cope with warmer temperatures, while in Greece brown bears are more likely to be active at night. “Heat survivors” are those who survive the heat but suffer invisible costs such as disease and poor growth.

A young screech owl suffering from the heat wave looks out from the middle of a towel
A young scops owl suffering from the heat rests at the L’Hirondelle (Swallow) wildlife protection center in Saint-Forgeux, France. Photography: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images

John Spicer, professor of marine zoology at the University of Plymouth, said the tidal zone in Plymouth Harbour, which is normally occupied by hermit crabs foraging for food and shells at low tide, is calmed down during the heat wave. The crabs that remained seemed sluggish and some were unresponsive.

“Mobile animals that have remained in the intertidal zone are eerily immobile,” Spicer said. Beach hoppers, which recycle beach materials, waited for the heat rather than recomposing the nutrients, and sometimes there was a pocket of a hundred crusty dead, he observed.

He added: “If they survive the heat stress, they may be damaged or their ‘energy bills’ may be geared more towards maintenance rather than other equally essential functions such as growth and reproduction. So the cost of living is rising – and I don’t need to tell you the effects of such a rise.

Just outside Plymouth, three species of common seaweed have suffered significant heat damage. “The creatures that seem most affected, and it makes sense, are the ones that can’t move, that are fixed in place — barnacles, mussels, sponges, sea anemones,” Spicer said.

There have been reports of rare purple hairstreak butterflies venture down from the tops of the oaks to the ponds to obtain humidity. Across the UK, there are fears the heatwave may have scorched the plants these insects feed on and killed the young caterpillars, which could lead to dramatic declines in some species.

A bee on a clump of wildflowers in an uncut meadow in Eton, Windsor
Flowers in a small strip of meadow left uncut in Eton, Berkshire, as a wildlife habitat. Photography: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

Bumblebees will also be hit hard, said University of Sussex biology professor Dave Goulson. They are relatively large and have fur coats which are adaptations to living in cool conditions. In 40°C heat, they could not feed. “They overheat in really hot weather and just can’t fly – imagine trying to flap their arms 200 times a second while wearing a fur coat,” Goulson said. They usually have food reserves in their nest, so they can survive for a few days, but can die if there are long periods of heat.

For a number of British bumblebees it will be too hot to survive in Britain with a warming of 2°C. Under the best climate scenario, seven common bumblebees should be unable to live in most of England’s lowlands, Goulson said. Research from 2020 suggested that the expansion or decline of bumblebee species may be driven by their resistance to heat stress.

Generally, animals such as reptiles and insects, which are ectotherms, are severely affected because they are unable to control their body heat – it simply matches the temperature of the surrounding environment. Residents of cities that suffer from the heat island effect would experience the greatest temperature increases. “In more natural environments that have lots of trees, vegetation and bodies of water, there will be more cool air and shade,” said Dr Natalie Pilakouta, an ecologist at the University of Aberdeen. Placing feeders in gardens, waterholes and water baths will help wildlife through a heat wave, she said.

Six birds in a muddy puddle on Dorney Common, Buckinghamshire
Birds in the last area of ​​flood water on Dorney Common, Buckinghamshire, as the common is scorched by the July 15 heatwave. Photography: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock

Conservationists should also think about creating landscapes that will better withstand heat waves, said Mike Morecroft, lead author of the IPCC report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability who also works for Natural England. “What we’re really interested in is deliberately trying to target some of our conservation efforts in what we call climate change refuges, so naturally cool places, like north-facing slopes or higher elevations. high,” he said. “Also, places close to the coast tend to be a bit cooler – because of this, the sea tends to dampen fluctuations in air temperature.”

Incorporating more water into landscapes means they are more resilient in hot, dry summers and also store water in the event of major floods. This will help prevent wildfires and reduce the effects of drought that often accompany such hot weather. Because the drought, heat, and wildfires all hit at the same time, it’s difficult to disentangle the effects of each. “The impacts of this week can only be properly assessed in the months and years to come,” Morecroft said.

However, the urgent reduction of greenhouse gases is the top priority. Spicer said the mitigation and adaptation strategies are well-intentioned and reassure us that we are doing something, but they won’t avert the car crash to come.

“The speed at which we hit the wall is determined by our production of greenhouse gases. The question is not whether we can avoid the crash but how fast you want to travel when we hit the wall,” he said. “Dramatically reducing greenhouse gases – that’s what we can actually do about it, even if it’s painful.”

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