The first map has been produced that can detail how nearly all of Britain’s lowland meadows and pasture land was lost to increasingly intensive farming in the last century.
Northumbria University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences revealed that nearly all of the country’s semi-natural grassland was lost, including all but 10 per cent of the country’s lowland meadows and pasture.
Research co-leader, Northumbria University Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences ecologist Dr Andrew Suggitt, said: “We’ve known for a while that the two most prominent drivers of biodiversity loss – land use change and climate change – can interact to worsen each other’s effect on species.
“But until now we have lacked digital maps of land use that go back far enough to cover the substantial changes associated with the intensification of agriculture that peaked in the mid-20thcentury, when semi-natural grasslands were converted, hedgerows were removed, and more land was brought into production.
Researchers used their map to assess the consequent effects upon flora and fauna using a large citizen science dataset of 1,192 species and more than 20 million distribution records, to determine how factors might potentially each other and drive contractions in a species’ geographic range.
In fact they surmised, interactions between these factors were relatively rare, affecting less than one in five species, and when occurring, their combined effect on extinction risk was often weak. However around one in six species were negatively affected by climate warming and/or land conversion or both, and were more likely to disappear from such areas.
Added Suggitt: “Our map allowed us to test for interactions between climate change and land use change during this important episode of upheaval in the mid-to-late 20th century. We found that these factors don’t often interact to drive range retractions, which is good news, but the highly individual character of the responses will mean that we need to include species-level information in policies aimed at climate change adaptation or biodiversity goals.”
His co-leader and fellow ecologist from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Dr Alistair Auffret commented that semi-natural pastures and meadows remained hotspots of biodiversity across Europe but there had been little surprise at the extent of their loss in Britain during the previous century.
“Our results showed that retaining these habitats was important for reducing local losses in specialist species, but it remains the case that many such species are under threat. Conserving and restoring natural and semi-natural habitat in line with international agreements and targets should be a priority,” stated Auffret.
The study, ‘Linking climate warming and land conversion to species’ range changes across Great Britain’, is published inNature Communications while the land use change maps for Britain are freely available for download here.