Climate change leaves wildlife confused and under the weather

By Terry Kirby

Britain's wildlife is sending out a clear message about the seriousness of climate change as its life cycles are thrown into confusion, often with fatal results.

Across the country mammals, reptiles, birds and insects have been prompted by the very mild winter, so far the second mildest on record, into emerging from shelter and starting their breeding seasons long before they should.

As a result they are getting caught out when the weather turns cold again, or just as harmfully, wet - and the young of many species are dying. Baby hedgehogs, baby squirrels, even baby grass snakes are being found in distressed conditions in many places.

The disturbing trend is emerging as climate change once again moves to the political centre stage.

The Government's long-awaited climate change bill will be published next week, Environment Minister Lord Rooker announced yesterday.

Delays in the preparation of the bill have led to questions being asked about the Government's commitment to tackling global warming.

Opposition parties fear that the Government's proposals will not be specific enough, and have pressed for annual targets in carbon dioxide reductions.

But next week Environment Secretary David Miliband will issue an undertaking to cut Britain's carbon output by between 15 and 25 million tonnes by the year 2020.

The visible impact on Britain's wildlife has manifested itself in the form of earlier-than-normal breeding, egg-laying, nesting and flowering of plants and trees, observed in British wildlife for over 15 years and now linked to global warming in a whole series of scientific studies.

They have sparked huge new interest in the discipline of phenology - the timing of natural events.

But until now the changes have been seen as potentially harmful in the future, rather than actually hitting present-day creatures.

That situation seems to have changed this winter. One place with a remarkable overview of it is the St Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, which has been receiving a stream of young creatures suffering from the entirely new ailment of being born at the wrong time.

Baby rabbits born weeks too early, found wet and shivering by the roadside and infant grass snakes whose parents should not even have emerged from hibernation until later this month have all recently been brought into the hospital.

A typical inhabitant is Bushy, as he has been named by staff, a 10-day-old grey squirrel, still blind, about 10cm long and utterly helpless. He is being bottle fed and even needs a human being to help his bladder work, a job normally done by his mother, from whom he was separated when their nest was disturbed by tree cutters.

And just like a huge polar bear trapped on a melting ice flow or a whale confused by suddenly warm currents, Bushy has become the latest symbol of global warming.

It was not the fault of Bushy or his parents that, roused from their slumbers by the mild weather since Christmas, they did what all animals do when they sense spring coming on, to ensure the procreation of their species. They should just have postponed matters for a few weeks.

"He really should not be here. He was born two or three weeks before he should have been," says Les Stocker, founder of Tiggywinkles.

Bushy, who is likely to spend the rest of his life at Tiggywinkles, near Aylesbury, is only one of many animals to arrive at the hospital over the past few weeks because their life cycles have been thrown into potentially fatal confusion.

"This is the busiest year we have had for these kind of animals being brought in," said Stocker. "The animals are becoming active and mating earlier than normal, but you can still get sudden cold snaps."

Cold weather can either simply kill some young animals or prompt others back into hibernation, from which they do not wake because they lack sufficient fat reserves. Most of the animals will not be released back into the wild until later in the spring when the weather is more reliable.

The arrivals at Tiggywinkles are not just confined to those being born early. Toads and newts that should still be under a rock somewhere, and pipestrelle bats which are normally still hibernating in hollow trees and barns, have all been found. They need care because there aren't enough insects around for them to survive on.

Some baby birds have been brought into the hospital - a blackbird and two ducklings. All are vulnerable to sudden cold spells.

"Ducklings before Christmas is just crazy," says Lisa Frost, the research manager. "But you can see all the signs of nest building going on already."

Worst hit are the hedgehogs, a creature which has increasingly found its way into the nation's affections ever since Beatrix Potter created the house-proud hedgehog Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

When the hospital was founded in the 1970s, she was chosen as its namesake, although it has always treated all animals.

Tiggywinkles has dozens of hedgehogs being kept in banks of special cages. Normally, Tiggywinkles would only see only a handful of hedgehogs in the January-March period. This year they have had more than 80, on top of the 500 they had in the two months before Christmas, itself a 40 per cent increase.

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The global impact

* Birds: Migratory and breeding patterns have been thrown into confusion across Europe. Chiff-chaffs are remaining in the United Kingdom throughout the year rather than migrating south.

* Fish: Fish such as red mullet, once found only off Britain's southerly coastline, are now steadily being spotted further north, including the west coast of Scotland. Warm-water species such as tuna are being increasingly found by Cornish fishermen.

* Turtles: Breeding grounds on beaches in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean are under threat from rising sea levels. Water temperature affects the sex ratio, so warmer seas could mean some species becoming entirely female.

* Butterflies: One study reports two-thirds of European butterflies have shifted their habitats north by between 30 and 240 kilometres.

* Polar bears: Their habitat of Arctic sea ice is melting away, while seals, their natural prey, are believed to be at risk from a decline in fish stocks. Polar bears are now thinner than 20 years ago.

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