Global warming: A British Noah's Ark

Britain's climate could provide a 'Noah's Ark' for species affected by global warming in their own habitats. Roger Dobson explains

A word of warning for any rabid anti-immigrationists out there; a new kind of migrant may soon descend upon the shorts of Britain searching fo the chance of a better life.

These permanent incomers will not be fleeing political, economic or religious oppression, but escaping climate change and avoiding extinction.

According to new research, the British Isles could become a vast living ark, or ARC – assisted regional colonisation area – where animal and plant species threatened by climate change would begin a new life.

The Iberian lynx, Spanish imperial eagle, de Prunner's ringlet butterfly, and the Caucasian wingnut tree, are among the potential species listed for rescuing and moving to Britain, which, researchers say, is ideally placed to become an ARC.

Professor Chris Thomas, a conservation biologist at the University of York, says: "There is an urgency about this and we need to develop a long shopping list of species that could be located here and monitor them so that action can be taken when needed. This kind of translocation is the only realistic conservation option we have for species that cannot otherwise escape the threat of climate change.

"The later it is left, the harder and more expensive these translocations to the ARC will become. The only viable option to maintain populations of many of these species in the wild is to translocate them to other locations where the climate is suitable, and Britain is ideal.''

Climate change poses a real threat to animal and plant species. While the challenges to large mammals, like the polar bear and panda, have been well documented, many thousands of diverse species are threatened globally.

Some are equipped to adapt to a warmer world and some are able to naturally migrate, but for many others, survival will be a challenge with a very real threat of extinction. There's evidence that some species are already shifting their distributions towards higher latitudes and elevations, but many others are unable to cross natural and human-created barriers.

Those animals that are native to the summits of single mountain ranges, for example, like the climate-threatened golden bowerbird in the mountains of Queensland, face huge hurdles. In order to migrate the birds would have to descend and pass through hostile environments, and it is unlikely that they would spread across hot lowlands in order to set up home in cooler areas. If they had been capable of that, they probably would have already already done so. It has been estimated that unless something is done, 20 to 40 per cent of species could disappear with climate warming.

One strategy to deal with the emerging crisis is assisted colonisation, the idea of moving plants and animals from the area where they are threatened, to a safer environment – like parts of the UK.

Such translocations, have been carried out on a small scale, for more traditional conservation reasons – and many have been successful. Scientists in New Zealand and Australia have developed a successful strategy of establishing endangered species on offshore islands where predators, like rats, are not present. A population of captive-bred dibblers, an endangered marsupial from Western Australia, was successfully moved to a predator-free island two decades ago, and the movement to another island of Gilbert's potoroo, an endangered Australian mammal, has also worked.

The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance is working on trying to establish the Torreya taxifolia, which is native to Florida, in the Appalachians to protect the ancient and endangered tree from fungal pathogens in its native areas. Attempts are also underway to move a population of endangered Bermuda petrels to an area where hurricanes and sea-level rise pose less of a risk.

While many of these one-off projects have been carried out successfully, the sheer number of species at risk worldwide in various climate-change scenarios means that an overall strategy is needed to co-ordinate the exodus from the threatened areas.

Although the concept of rescuing species and translocating seems an attractive one, it is not without its challenges. Immigrant species could become pests or disrupt ecosystems in their new homes, they could become victims of predators and they may bring new diseases or parasites.

Thomas, who makes the case for an ARC strategy in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, accepts that translocation could cause problems, but says it needs to looked at globally. "In general, most species on Earth are restricted to small geographic areas,'' he says. "In Britain we have very few species that are unique to this country.

"We rightly invest in conservation in Britain, but we spend not to prevent global extinction, but to try and keep species in our own country. The red squirrel is an example. Even if it disappeared from Britain, it would not be extinct at a global level.

"Although introduced species can cause changes to the distributions and abundances of indigenous species, they do not normally bring about species-level extinctions. While some native British species have declined and become more localised, to the best of my knowledge, no native species has disappeared as a result of non-native species – other than humans – establishing in Britain.''

He adds: "Britain contains few native species, has its vegetation heavily modified by humans and appears almost immune to extinctions from introduced species. It therefore represents an ideal destination for species displaced by climate change.''

Animals that could be brought to Britain

1. Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus)

The most endangered cat in the world, it lives in the Iberian Peninsula. It is descended from lynx that lived more widely in Europe before the late Pleistocene arrival of the now-widespread Eurasian lynx. Researchers say establishment of the Iberian lynx in Britain would represent a greater contribution to world conservation than re-introducing the Eurasian lynx. Rabbits, the main prey of Iberian lynx, are abundant in southern Britain.

2. Spanish imperial eagle

An extremely rare eagle (very similar to the one pictured above) that is native to Spain and Portugal, it is a large – up to 33in in length – dark brownish-black bird with prominent white wing marks. It is potentially threatened by climate change. Rabbit, its main prey, is found in abundance in Britain.

3. Provence chalkhill blue (Polyommatus hispanus)

A butterfly found in northern Spain, southern France and northern Italy, it is currently at serious risk of extinction from climate change and researchers say the climate in southern England is predicted to become suitable. The host plants of the butterfly already grow in southern England.

4. de Prunner's ringlet

A butterfly native to southern European mountains, it is threatened by climate change. Projections suggest that England represents a considerable portion of its potential new range – and the larvae feed on types of grass already common in Britain.

5. Iberian water beetles

Many of the 120 water beetle species native to the Iberian Peninsula that occupy streams in one or a few mountain ranges are under threat from increased droughts.

6. Pyrenean desman (Galemys pyrenaicus)

A distinct semi-aquatic insectivorous mammal that lives in streams in the Pyrenees where it is threatened by climate change. Establishing populations in streams in western Britain might be feasible.