Water birds face death as warming sinks mudflats

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Hundreds of thousands of much-loved British water birds face being wiped out by the effects of global warming, conservationists warn.

Hundreds of thousands of much-loved British water birds face being wiped out by the effects of global warming, conservationists warn.

Every autumn more than a million dunlins, knots and Brent geese arrive from the Arctic to overwinter at coastal salt marshes, estuaries and other wetlands in Britain, amassing in spectacular flocks of up to 250,000 birds. But the latest analysis, from scientists in Cambridge, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, predicts these birds could suffer a dramatic decline over the next 50 years.

The scientists' most conservative predictions are based on global temperatures rising by 1.7C – an increase expected to take place because of the existing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But in the worst case for Brent geese – nearly 140,000 nest in Britain – up to 44 per cent of their breeding grounds in the Arctic will be lost as permafrost melts and warmer temperatures lead to forests spreading northwards.

The red knot could lose 33 per cent of its breeding grounds in Canada and Greenland, leading to a decline in the UK's population of 100,000. Its nesting sites in Britain are also under threat, as mudflats, such as those of the Thames and Ribble, vanish through sea-level rises. At least 10 per cent of coastal mudflats are under direct threat, the RSPB says.

Sea-level rises, affecting salt marshes, will also damage the dunlin, likely to face a 36 per cent decline. About 80 hectares of salt marsh are already lost each year: over the next 50 years over 10 per cent of Britain's 40,000 hectares of salt marsh may be lost to the sea, even if carbon dioxide emissions stay at current levels.

The warnings were issued to coincide with the latest international talks on implementing the Kyoto Protocol, taking place this week in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Mark Avery, the RSPB's director of conservation, said environmentalists feared a dilution of the protocol's provisions, and stringent measures were needed to stop climate change becoming a "complete disaster".

Dr Christoph Zockler, co-author of a report on the threat to Arctic water birds, said some species could adapt, but most, especially the knot, were in great danger. "They've demonstrated very little flexibility, so we're afraid that they will be pushed to the edge."

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