Animal shelters received a plethora of calls, birds fell from the sky and nature reserves burned down as British wildlife baked in last week’s heat wave.
Conservationists said animals were eerily quiet as they tried to shelter from the heat. Experts fear that record temperatures could cause a further decline in insect numbers, with bumblebees and butterflies most affected.
Desiccated hedgehogs, baby birds, fox cubs and grass snakes were among the victims aided by the RSPCA, who warned that the extent of damage from heat stress in the 40C (104F) conditions was staggering. “Our emergency center has many more calls than usual. We received 7,186 calls to our helpline on Monday, compared to 4,416 on Sunday, which was a big increase,” said Evie Button, research associate in the RSPCA’s wildlife department.
There were reports of swifts falling from the sky in London, and Oxfordshire Wildlife Rescue near Didcot said it could not take any more animals after the heat wave increased the number of victims. “Often you don’t see the consequences of something like this right away because the nature of animals hide when they are sick or injured,” Button said. “A lot of times people see them and call us when they are really bad. impact will therefore remain hidden.”
One of the most dramatic events was a bushfire in the Wild Ken Hill Reserve in Norfolk, where 33 acres of thornbush went up in flames, destroying nesting grounds for lovebirds, grasshopper warblers and reed warblers. Reptiles and amphibians would have burned, while most of the birds would have escaped — except for those that nest late in the season, experts said. “I saw some birds flying back into the flames. I think the maternal instinct is pretty strong,” says project manager Dominic Buscall. “I worry that it will happen again this year. It’s incredibly dry, we haven’t forecast any rain this week and it’s only mid-July,” he added.
What is happening in the UK is part of a bigger picture, with heat waves becoming more frequent as the climate crisis escalates. Across Europe, land had been scorched in recent days and there were fires in a number of countries, including Spain, Greece and France. With heat waves projected to be 12 times more common by 2040 than before global warming, animals around the world are changing their behavior to cope with them. For example, research shows that grizzly bears in Alberta, Canada, seek more closed, shady vegetation to cope with the higher temperatures, while in Greece brown bears are more likely to be active at night. “Survivors of a heat wave” are those who get through the heat but suffer from invisible costs such as disease and poor growth.
John Spicer, a professor of marine zoology at the University of Plymouth, said the tidal zone of Plymouth Harbor, which is normally busy with hermit crabs seeking food and shells at low tide, became quiet during the heat wave. The crabs that remained looked sluggish and some unresponsive.
“The mobile animals that have stayed in the intertidal area are eerily silent,” Spicer said. The beach hoppers, which recycle beach material, waited for the heat instead of reconstituting nutrients, and every now and then there was a bag of a hundred crusty dead ones, he noted.
He added: “If they survive the heat stress, they could be damaged or their ‘energy bill’ could be more focused on sustaining themselves than on other equally essential functions such as growth and reproduction. So the cost of living is going up — and I don’t have to tell you the effects of such an increase.”
Just outside Plymouth, three common seaweed species showed major damage from the heat. “The creatures that seem to be most affected, and this makes sense, are the ones that can’t move, that are in place — the barnacles, the clams, the sponges, the sea anemones,” Spicer said.
There have been reports of rare purple hairline butterflies venture down from the tops of oak trees to ponds to get moisture. In the UK, there are concerns that the heat wave will have scorched the plants these insects feed on and kill young caterpillars, potentially leading to dramatic declines in some species.
Bumblebees will also be hit hard, said Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex. They are relatively large and have furry coats that are adaptations to living in cool conditions. In 40C heat they would not be able to forage. “They overheat in really hot weather and just can’t fly — imagine waving your arms 200 times a second while wearing a fur coat,” says Goulson. They usually have some food reserves in their nest, so they may survive for a few days but may die if there are prolonged periods of heat.
For a number of British bumblebees, at 2C warming will be too hot to survive in Britain. In the most favorable climate scenario, seven common bumblebees are predicted to be unable to live in most of England’s lowlands, Goulson said. 2020 research suggested that the expansion or decline of bumblebee species could be driven by their resistance to heat stress.
In general, animals like reptiles and insects, which are ectotherms, are severely affected because they can’t control their body heat – it just matches the temperature of the environment. Those living in cities suffering from the heat island effect would experience the greatest temperature increases. “In more natural environments with lots of trees, vegetation and bodies of water, there will be more cool air and shade,” said Dr Natalie Pilakouta, an ecologist at the University of Aberdeen. Placing feeders in gardens, water points and water baths will help wildlife survive a heat wave, she said.
Conservationists should also think about creating landscapes that are more resistant to heat waves, says Mike Morecroft, lead author of the IPCC report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, who also works for Natural England. “Something we’re quite interested in is that we’re deliberately trying to focus some of our conservation efforts on what we call climate change refugia, so places that are naturally cool, like north-facing slopes or higher elevations,” he said. he. “Places on the coast are also often a bit cooler – so the sea tends to absorb fluctuations in air temperature.”
By absorbing more water into landscapes, they are more resilient in hot, dry summers and also store water during major floods. This helps prevent wildfires and mitigate the effects of drought that often accompany such hot weather. Since drought, heat and wildfires have struck all at once, it is difficult to unravel the effects of each. “This week’s effects will not be properly assessed for months and years to come,” Morecroft said.
However, urgently reducing greenhouse gases has the highest priority. Spicer said that mitigation and adaptation strategies are well-intentioned and give us some comfort that we’re doing something, but they won’t prevent the coming car accident.
“The speed at which we hit the wall is determined by our greenhouse gas emissions. The question is not whether we can avoid the crash, but how fast you want to travel if we hit the wall,” he said. .”