Local action and land management help address climate change
At a time when climate change is arguably the most pressing of global challenges, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is working with partners at home and abroad to address the central issue of worldwide plant conservation.
While there is high regard for RBGE’s international work, projects in Scotland - where the climate is also changing – may be less well known. At home as with elsewhere, we look at the challenge of climate change in context with other factors. One such example is Cicerbita alpina, the ‘alpine blue sow thistle’, a tall herb at home on mountain grasslands and very palatable to grazing animals. As such it has become restricted to just four small mountain ledges beyond the reach of deer and sheep.
Because small, isolated, populations have lower genetic diversity than larger populations their ability to evolve and adapt to environmental change is limited. RBGE is undertaking some radical regeneration work. Following collecting trips by colleagues in the Science and Horticulture Divisions, new populations of Cicerbita alpina, with increased genetic diversity, are being propagated at RBGE’s Nursery. When robust, they are translocated back to their natural mountainside environments, where grazing animals are now being managed in sympathy with habitat restoration. The future is looking brighter for Cicerbita alpina.
Much of Scotland’s importance in international conservation, however, comes not from flowering plants but its abundance of algae, mosses, liverworts and fungi, including lichens. These are prevalent across the country: from the great wilderness of our mountains, to city streets and coastal rainforest. What they lack in size, they make up for in their importance to ecosystems, such as their ability to capture nitrogen that supports for plant growth and productivity.
They are also microhabitat specialists and occur under finely contrasting conditions around the country. Some species, for example, are associated only with patches of late-lying snow in the mountains and are threatened, therefore, by climate change. RBGE’s work includes discovering new species in these snowbed habitats, protecting them before they disappear and monitoring the situation to understand the speed with which their habitats are changing.
Under particular threat is Scotland’s coastal rainforest. Its very existence is sustained by a set of particular climatic conditions; mild temperatures throughout the year, and plentiful moisture. RBGE’s three Regional Gardens: wet and cool Benmore, in Argyll; wet and warm Logan, in Dumfries & Galloway and dry and cool Dawyck in the Scottish Borders, have sufficiently different climates to lend themselves as research sites to help understand the response of rainforest species to climate change.
At each of the three Regional Gardens, the growth of lichens has been measured monthly and compared to the climate. The variability of climates across the three sites is enough to estimate the effects of future climate change, including the potential health of lichen populations in Scotland’s rainforest over the coming decades. From this, we can start to understand how we might manage our woodlands, taking local actions to offset the effects of climate change.
Arguably, all conservation, from the eradication of invasive non-native species, to habitat restoration, is a part of the response to climate change. Land management, in its many guises, has an important role to play.
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