Climate change is as hot a topic today as it has been at any point in the last twenty or thirty years, with the news and programmes such as Springwatch and Blue Planet highlighting the often catastrophic impact human activity can have upon the natural world. After the hottest and driest summer for two generations the short-term effects are clearly observed in the disastrous moor fires, dried-up waterways and scorched fields across our local area and the longer-term question of how wildlife can recover will only become apparent in the years to come.
But climate change can be observed in less obvious and less devastating – although no less significant – signs in the changing species of wildlife we can encounter across the Carbon Landscape. By far the most common example is that of the little egret. Twenty years or so ago these dainty, brilliant white little herons with their incongruous yellow toes were eye-catching treats which I only encountered on holidays to continental Europe but in the intervening decades they have rapidly expanded their range with large nesting colonies established as far north as the Dee Estuary, Southport and Morecambe Bay. Nowadays you are almost as likely to encounter a little egret at Pennington Flash or Woolston Eyes as you are a grey heron, but they still have that exotic whiff of the Camargue or even a David Attenborough African wildlife programme. And it isn’t just birds – different species of insects including moths and butterflies are steadily spreading northwards as their range expands in response to changing climate.
It doesn’t take something as striking as an egret to serve as visible signs of change. As our winters get generally milder a few species which would previously have left these shores for sunnier climes in the autumn have become year-round residents. Walking along the canal towpath above the frosted reedbeds of the Wigan Flashes in the depths of January a sudden explosive burst of song announces a Cetti’s warbler, a small bird often heard but rarely seen as it skulks amongst the rushes and shrubs. It is only in relatively recent times that these birds and their cousins the chiffchaff and the blackcap have started to base themselves as permanent fixtures in our area rather than as summer visitors, a calculated gamble given they are primarily insect eaters and a prolonged cold snap could prove disastrous. However, it is a risk seemingly worth taking as it not only spares these small birds the twice-yearly perils of the migration route to southern Europe and Africa but also means they have first shout on the best territories in the spring before their migrating rivals arrive.
Change doesn’t just occur naturally and whilst human activity is usually seen in terms of its negative impact on the natural world, it can also be enlightened and beneficial, for example through the careful reintroduction of extinct or threatened native species. A prime example of how rapidly nature can respond to a helping hand came at the Paddington Meadow bioblitz in July, when we were treated to a site-first record of a red kite with its distinctive forked tail soaring lazily over the reserve. Once commonplace in our cities these striking birds of prey had been persecuted to extinction in this country by the end of the Victorian era but following conservation and reintroduction efforts they are making a rapid comeback with birds now being seen with increasing regularity throughout our landscape.
But change isn’t always beneficial and what is good for one animal is bad for another. The ever-warming climate of our region coupled with human activities means special measures need to be taken to conserve certain habitats and the specialist wildlife living there but species such as the hedgehog will find life in a drier and warmer climate far harder. Of course there are many other factors to be taken into account including farming methods and the expansion of our towns and cities but the recent hot, dry weather has seen a dramatic increase in reports of dehydrated and hungry hedgehogs, further emphasising the value of providing your garden wildlife with a regular source of drinking water as well as food.
So with the changes over the last few decades it is natural to look to the future and wonder what lies in store. Will it be great white egrets or the punk-rocker cattle egret, cousins of the little egret – both are now regular visitors and residents in the wider north west. Glossy ibis made a fleeting visit to Pennington Flash this spring, could these exotic birds also become more common? Who knows maybe spoonbills or bee-eaters? Perhaps old favourites now on the road to recovery such as the osprey or the otter could become more regular sightings? One thing is for sure – regardless of our actions change will continue to take place and new characters will appear on the stage of the Carbon Landscape in the years ahead.