More action needed to protect wild plants in Europe against climate change
Release Date 26 November 2009
Current conservation efforts across Europe are inadequate to protect wild plants from climate change. These are the findings from a report by scientists at the University of Reading, which will be presented this week (23-26 Nov) at a meeting of the Council of Europe's Bern Convention.
The Bern Convention was set up 30 years ago to protect Europe's wildlife. The report calls for more targeted action to protect our wild plant species from the effects of climate change.
Professor Vernon Heywood, lead author of the report, says: "Conservation efforts in Europe are failing to halt the loss of biodiversity. These measures were set up before the additional risks from climate change were recognised. We need a major scaling up of current conservation measures, so that climate change is considered alongside population growth, loss of habitat and pollution.
"Lists of threatened species will have to be revised, our system of protected areas re-planned, human intervention scaled-up and more research done to help focus our efforts The time-scale of 50 to 100 years to achieve all this is daunting," says Professor Heywood.
While some plants will be able to adapt or migrate in the face of climate change, some will not. This will result in many of Europe's landscapes changing as new groupings of plants replace existing communities, and the pattern of crops able to grow in the new climatic conditions will also change. Plants in the Mediterranean and southern Europe will be badly affected by increasing temperature and reduced rainfall and those growing in high mountains and coastal areas will also be at risk. Changes in most countries are likely to be visible in the next few decades.
"There is a balance to be struck between protecting plants by moving them into newly suitable regions and the risk of generating a new cohort of invasive weeds by moving species outside their native range," says the University of Reading's Dr Alastair Culham. "For example, Cyclamen species which grow wild in the Mediterranean are likely to become extinct as conditions there get warmer and drier. Their only hope of survival may be to establish them in more suitable areas – even in domestic gardens. In fact this process of human intervention has already started, albeit unintentionally, as Cyclamen is becoming a common plant in many people's gardens. "
Europe has many nature reserves and protected areas (they cover around 17% of Europe's land area) but, as in other parts of the world, climate change is likely to make conditions in some of them unsuitable for their target species – as many as 58% of species in some cases according to a recent estimate.
The report concludes that existing reserves need to be made more resilient to climate change by building in connectivity such as corridors that will allow species to migrate. Since most species grow outside protected areas, much more effort needs to be put into off-site conservation through set-aside, incentive-based schemes with private landowners and other forms of private-public collaboration to enhance the chances of species surviving outside reserves.
The report also stresses that the impact of invasive species may increase the urgency of action due to ecological disruption linked to climate change. Invasive "weeds" already cost Europe as much as 12 billion Euros a year to control and much more vigorous efforts will need to be made to restrict the introduction of species that are likely to become invasive and spread as climate change takes hold. It is ironic that the recent tendency to introduce garden plants that can cope with extremes of climate may backfire if these same species escape into the wild. Trade agreements will be needed to prevent the planting of potentially invasive species such as non-native grasses and drought adapted alien tree species.
Of course these measures will need considerably more financial and human investment. As an example, the most expensive European plant species in terms of conservation costs is the Lake Constance forget-me-not (Myosotis rehsteineri) which has cost over 2 million Euros to protect. At the moment however, most biodiversity strategies and plans are uncosted and most of the effort is being targeted at actions that are not specifically designed to protect plants from climate change.
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Notes to editors:
(1) The Impacts of Climate Change on Plant Species in Europe, by Prof Vernon Heywood with Dr Alastair Culham, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading. Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, Standing Committee, Strasbourg , T-PVS/Inf(2009) 9, 23 November 2009.
In summary, the report calls for:
1. A reassessment of conservation policy and budgets at a national and regional level is needed, but not at the expense of practical conservation.
2. Baseline reports on species occurring in Europe, and the threats to them, need to be coordinated into an agreed action list.
3. Model-based studies to identify species most at risk from climate change.
4. A flexible approach to protected areas that facilitates migration with climate change to ameliorate the impact of climate.
5. Direct human intervention will be necessary to preserve some species, either by assisted migration or ex-situ conservation.