Linking climate warming and land conversion to species’ range changes across Great Britain

Farmland, by Mike Toms / BTO

Author(s): Suggitt, A.J., Wheatley, C.J., Aucott, P., Beale, C.M., Fox, R., Hill, J.K., Isaac, N.J.B., Martay, B., Southall, H., Thomas, C.D., Walker, K.J. & Auffret , A.G.

Published: October 2023  

Journal: Nature Communications Volume: 14

Article No.: 6759

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1038/s41467-023-42475-0

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Habitat loss and climate change are two major threats to global biodiversity. How these two threats interact to drive biodiversity changes is less well understood. In this study, the authors examined changes in bird, butterfly, moth and plant distributions across the UK over the past 75 years to investigate how species respond to these combined threats.

The most notable changes over the past 75 years have been an increase in temperature and a loss of roughly 90% of lowland meadow and pasture, mainly converted to arable farmland and improved grassland. Across all UK species analysed, the combined impact of climate change and land conversion increased extinction risk for 12% of species, while reduced extinction risk for 40%, with over half of species showing increases in range linked to rising temperatures. It should be noted that many of the species most negatively impacted by land-use and climate change may be too rare to be included in the analysis, skewing the results towards the more successful species.

Interestingly, the results showed that for most species, the impacts of climate and land-use change did not interact: land-use changes rarely influenced how species responded to climate change and vice versa. For species impacted by both drivers, they were almost always additive effects, with species either responding well to both changes or badly to both changes.

The results show the diversity in species’ responses to drivers of change, highlighting the importance of biological recording and the inclusion of species-level information when devising plans to maintain biodiversity. They also suggest that accounting for interactions between land-use and climate change may be less important than predicted.


Although increased temperatures are known to reinforce the effects of habitat destruction at local to landscape scales, evidence of their additive or interactive effects is limited, particularly over larger spatial extents and longer timescales. To address these deficiencies, we created a dataset of land-use changes over 75 years, documenting the loss of over half (>3000 km2) the semi-natural grassland of Great Britain. Pairing this dataset with climate change data, we tested for relationships to distribution changes in birds, butterflies, macromoths, and plants (n = 1192 species total). We show that individual or additive effects of climate warming and land conversion unambiguously increased persistence probability for 40% of species, and decreased it for 12%, and these effects were reflected in both range contractions and expansions. Interactive effects were relatively rare, being detected in less than 1 in 5 species, and their overall effect on extinction risk was often weak. Such individualistic responses emphasise the importance of including species-level information in policies targeting biodiversity and climate adaptation.


The authors thank the many thousands of volunteer surveyors of land use and biodiversity, without whom these analyses would not have been possible. Data and imagery from the Land-Utilisation Survey of Great Britain are reproduced with permission of the copyright holder Giles N. Clark. Chris Fleet at National Library of Scotland provided assistance with land-use maps covering Scotland, and Natural England provided assistance with maps covering England and Wales. This work was supported by a UKRI Natural Environment Research Council grant (NE/M013030/1, for A.J.S., J.K.H. and C.D.T.), a Northumbria University Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellowship (for A.J.S.), and grants from the Swedish Research Councils Formas and VR (2015-1065 and 2020-04276, for A.G.A.).
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