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Friday, January 18th 2008

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Aubrey Manning is Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh and a renowned expert on genetics and animal behaviour - however, he has jumped ship so to speak to the world of geo-science and tonight will give the first in a series of public lectures at the launch of Ireland's participation in the UN's International Year of Planet Earth.

This talk will illustrate how the earth sciences and biology can together help us to understand something of how our planet 'works.' The histories of life and the Earth have been intertwined for almost 4 billion years - 8/9ths of the solar system's existence - and it is 3 billion years since the existence of life began to affect the structure of Earth's crust.

These effects have continued and the planet's dynamic nature has, in turn, profoundly affected the course of life's evolution. Life has not always been given an easy ride. There have been several periods when conditions across the globe have been very hostile and there have been mass extinctions. These are revealed by fossils in the rocks, but the causes of these events - almost certainly multiple causes - still leave us with some fascinating geological and biological questions to answer.

The gradual unfolding of life and the Earth's history together ought to allow us to look more objectively at prospects for the future. Quite obviously the gigantic increases in human numbers and human technology over the past century are threatening the Earth's age-old life support systems. We shall need to pay more heed to the health of our planetary home. The great opportunities for research and education provided by IYPE will not only offer some solutions to our dilemmas but hopefully too will inspire us better to cherish our beautiful planet and learn not to take it for granted.

Ireland's year-long celebration of IYPE takes the form of a series of interesting events and activities organised by the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI) and various partners, north and south, including the Royal Irish Academy. These include a "Planet Earth" Public Lecture series (to be delivered by speakers of international renown), a TV series to broadcast in September, local walks and talks, commemorative stamps, exhibitions and lots of schools products and activities such as a nationwide rock search competition and classroom posters.

Aubrey is Emeritus Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests cover animal behaviour, development and evolution and he has long been involved in environmental issues. A distinguished broadcaster, his television series have included Seven Wonders of the Earth and Earth Story.

On Tuesday, a new book was published which looks at how bird distributions across Europe would change if global warming increased the average temperature by just three degrees centigrade - and it makes for some pretty grim reading. Niall Hatch, Development Manager with BirdWatch Ireland, came in to tell us all about it.

It's called A Climatic Atlas Of European Breeding Birds, and it compares the distribution of birds in Europe at the moment against the distribution of the same birds if the temperature increased by three degrees because of global warming. It's published as a partnership between Durham University, the RSPB and Lynx Editions, in association with the University of Cambridge, BirdLife International and the EBCC (European Bird Census Council). It has 'before and after' maps for 431 species (and brief accounts for a further 48 native & 16 introduced species).

More species look set to lose than to gain from the projected climate change. If the average temperature goes up by three degrees, then the distributions of the birds will on average shift by about 550km (c. 340 miles) north-east by the end of the century, and reduce in size by about a fifth, so birds such as the Dartford Warbler, which at the moment can be found in Northern Africa and Southern Italy, will potentially become common in Britain and Ireland, and Western Europe.

The Atlas describes the current breeding range of each species in Europe in terms of three measures of climate: summer warmth, winter cold and water availability. This describes the typical 'climate space' occupied by each species. The Atlas then combines this climate space information with models projecting the late-21st-century climate of Europe, under a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario. The results map the potential future range approximately 80 years from now, if global greenhouse gas emissions match this scenario. The potential future range describes the geographical area that is expected to have similar climate characteristics in the late 21st century to those present in the range of the species during the 1980s. It should be kept in mind that other factors, such as habitat availability, might prevent a species from fully occupying this potential future range.

As the distributions look to shift north-east, Arctic and sub-Arctic birds and some Iberian species are expected to suffer the greatest potential losses of range. Of special concern are range changes projected for some species found only in Europe, or with only small populations elsewhere. For these species, climate change is especially likely to increase their risk of extinction.

This winter has seen the well-publicised arrival in southern counties of the Cattle Egret, originally a bird of the Mediterranean region - Eric Dempsey was telling us about this a couple of weeks ago. This follows the effective colonisation of Ireland's wetlands by the closely-related Little Egret, an all-white heron once confined to southern Europe but now a familiar sight across the country. The appearance of the Cattle Egret and Little Egret here would suggest that Ireland's winters are now sufficiently mild that such warmth-loving species can now survive here.

The Climatic Atlas predicts a number of changes to Ireland's bird life over the course of this century. According to the authors, Ireland may stand to lose iconic species such as Long-eared Owl, Red Grouse and Curlew forever, and future generations may become accustomed to an entirely new suite of species, such as Cetti's Warbler, White Stork and the curiously-named Zitting Cisticola, a tiny brown bird of reedbeds and wetland vegetation.

Habitat availability or hunting pressure can also play a part. The amount of some large species of birds of prey have been reduced from their historical numbers by human persecution, so whereas in the past these birds would have occupied a much larger area, now their area of living is much smaller, and so may not provide an accurate basis for predicting potential future range under climate change (there might not be as much - or indeed there may be more - human persecution in the 'new' area). The same goes for species whose ranges are currently limited by a lack of habitats that are naturally rare, such as cliffs, or habitats that are rare because of degradation or destruction by human activity, such as large wetlands. Although the birds may have these habitats at the moment, when the temperature goes up and their habitat moves 500km north-east, these cliffs/ wetlands etc… may not be present. The purpose of the land could change from natural to commercial or residential, and the availability of protected areas in the potential future could be a lot lesser than the current availability.

The great move north-east can also be delayed because it takes time for suitable conditions, such as habitat or food availability, to develop. A bird will not be able to move before such changes have themselves taken place. This also applies to potential losses of habitat: for example, it may take many decades for a type of forest required by a bird species to disappear from an area that is no longer climatically suitable. These lags buy crucial time for conservation. Managing the habitats to improve the newly suitable areas, and to delay or prevent the disappearance of the old ones is necessary in lessening the effects of climatic change on ecosystems and wildlife. Abandoning conservation measures at a site deemed to be a 'lost cause' because of projected climate change may prevent existing bird populations from producing enough descendants to occupy newly suitable areas elsewhere.

The book suggests that Natura 2000 must be strengthened - Natura 2000 is the European network of protected areas. These sites must be better protected, managed and connected to provide a "backbone for biodiversity" and to accommodate the expected changes in distribution. At the same time, the landscape outside these areas must become more 'permeable' to species' movements by providing stepping stones of high quality habitat and by more sustainable land-use policies. Another suggestion is that the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, and other conservation measures in the wider countryside across the EU, are implemented more stringently.

A Climatic Atlas Of European Breeding Birds is published by Lynx, the ISBN is 978-84-96553-14-9, and it retails for around €60.

The red squirrel is one of the most endangered wild life species on the island of Ireland. So it comes as no surprise that citizens are interested in taking whatever action they can to try to preserve the red squirrel in the wild. But it is not as simple as going on E Bay and buying two mating red squirrels and off you go.
Ferdia Marnell of the National Parks and Wildlife Service knows all the answers...

Queries about re introducing red squirrels are very common in the office where Ferdia works. But you have to remember that squirrels are endangered and protected species. There is no easy answer to a query like this. First things first. The National Parks and Wildlife Service will not licence people to translocate red squirrels until the findings of two pilot projects are clear.

There have been two translocation pilot projects in Connaught - red squirrels were introduced to Belleek Wood near Ballina and to Derryclare in Connemara. The progress of these translocations is being monitored by Colin Lawton of NUI Galway.

The public consultation period is now over. The plan will be amended in light of the suggestions made by the public. It then has to be formally approved by a committee of the Northern Ireland assembly as this is an all-Ireland initiative.

And we congratulate Marie Farrell, Co Laois on winning €1000 of Mooney's Money! To find out how you could win €1000 tomorrow, click here...