Born to die: Climate change disrupting life cycles with fatal results

A A A

The behaviour of Britain's wildlife is raising alarm about the seriousness of climate change as animals' breeding patterns are thrown into confusion. The second mildest winter on record has resulted in mammals, reptiles, birds and insects emerging from shelter far too early.

They are getting caught out by cold snaps or wet weather and the young of many species are dying. Baby hedgehogs, baby squirrels, even baby grass snakes are being found in distress 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, the 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.

The Environment Secretary, David Miliband, will go on the offensive over climate change next week. He will issue an undertaking to cut the UK's carbon output by between 15 and 25 million tonnes by 2020, although he will stop short of endorsing legally binding annual targets.

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 more than 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 the present. That situation seems to have changed this winter. One place with a remarkable overview is St Tiggywinkles wildlife hospital near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, which has been admitting large numbers of rabbits, grass snakes and other young animals suffering from the new ailment of being born at the wrong time.

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

"He really should not be here. He was born two or three weeks before he should have been,'' says Les Stocker, the founder of Tiggywinkles. " This is the busiest year we have had for these kind of animals being brought in,'' he added. "The animals are becoming active and mating earlier than normal, but you can still get sudden cold snaps to which they are vulnerable."

Cold weather can either kill young animals or prompt them into hibernation, from which they do not awake because they lack sufficient fat reserves.

Toads and newts that should still be under a rock and pipistrelle bats which are normally still hibernating in hollow trees and barns have all been found out and about ­ and there aren't enough insects around for them to survive on. The most unusual animals at the hospital are several edible dormice, so called because the Romans used to eat them. Not a native of this country, they are abundant in and around Tring in the Chilterns, where they have been breeding since escaping from a park 100 years ago. Ten times the size of a normal dormouse and looking more like a small squirrel, with a bushy tail, they normally don't emerge from hibernation until May.

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. She waves at the trees. "But you can see all the signs of nest building going on already.'' The mild winter is particularly confusing for hedgehogs. Baby hedgehogs are born in the autumn and the weaker ones weeded out by the first heavy frosts, ensuring the biggest are left to survive hibernation, when they rely upon their fat reserves. Warmer weather means that there are more weaker ones about who are not prompted into hibernating ­ this makes them vulnerable to hazards such as sudden cold or wet spells. Ms Frost hauls one from its cage. "This one was brought in at the beginning of February, underweight and not eating. It was too small to hibernate and really should have died in the autumn."

Normally, Tiggywinkles would see only a handful of hedgehogs between January and March. This year it has had more than 80, on top of the 500 in the two months before Christmas, itself a 40 per cent increase. "It has been incredibly busy," said Ms Frost. "Usually this is a quiet period."

But Mr Stocker remains unconvinced about climate change. "If it is happening ­ and I'm not sure that this hasn't all been hyped up ­ I have great faith that nature will sort itself out and learn to live with it. After all, hibernation is a bad idea."

The global impact

* BIRDS

Migratory and breeding patterns have been thrown into confusion across Europe. Chiff-chaffs are remaining in the UK 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.

* 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.

* BUTTERFLIES

One study reports two-thirds of European butterflies have shifted their habitats north by between 20 and 150 miles.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz