Scotland: the climate crisis and a changing landscape

Drink in the Beauty is an exhibition of work from Glasgow Museums’ collection at GOMA which will open to the public on 4 June 2021. The show looks at landscapes and nature through art and encourages us to think about how nature is changing as we interact with it – positively and negatively. Today is Earth Day and in advance of this show we are publishing this blog post which talks about how the climate crisis is affecting animals and the landscape in Scotland.

Modern humans have existed for 200,000 years. Agriculture and human settlements appeared around 12,000 years ago. As a species we have always interacted with and shaped the landscape, and we often turn to art to understand our connection with nature. From cave paintings of bison hunts to photography of urban foxes, art provides us with ways of looking at a changing world.

And the world is changing.

The climate crisis
Deforestation and livestock grazing have been increasing since the 1700s. In the last 200 years large-scale commercial forestry work, intensified agriculture, and industrialisation have changed our environment. As a species we are burning fossil fuels and destroying rainforests on an unprecedented scale. When we do this, we add enormous amounts of greenhouse gases to those naturally occurring in the atmosphere. These gases trap heat, like glass in a greenhouse, causing the earth’s temperature to rise and producing unpredictable and extreme weather. In Scotland, the average temperature has increased by 0.67°C in the last 10 years alone, and winters have been 25% wetter. It is becoming increasingly clear that nature is struggling to keep up.

Capercaillies in decline

Capercaillie (Glasgow Museums' collection)
Capercaillie (Glasgow Museums’ collection)

Capercaillies are huge woodland grouse. In Scotland they live in mature native pine woodlands and spend a lot of time on the ground eating berries, shoots and stems.

Capercaillies became extinct in Britain in the mid-1700s, probably due to a dramatic loss of their woodland habitat. They were re-introduced to Scotland using birds from Sweden in 1837 and by the 1970s their numbers had grown to about 20,000. Since then, Capercaillies have suffered another major decline. In 2017 scientists estimated that there were only 1,114 left in Scotland.

They are now one of our rarest birds.

Scientists researching this decline believe it is because of the changing climate and the destruction of suitable woodland habitat. Capercaillies begin to breed, and their chicks hatch, in spring and early summer. Because of climate change this time of year is wetter, with more erratic weather. Wetter springs negatively affect plants like the blaeberry. These plants are the Capercaillies’ main food source. The lack of available food during the mating and hatching season causes high levels of chick mortality, reducing population numbers.

This decline is intensified by the destruction of suitable habitats by large-scale building projects and outdoor sports. Without plenty of suitable land Capercaillies cannot find enough of their increasingly reduced food sources.

Lost generations of butterflies
An average temperate increase of 0.67°C in Scotland might not sound like much. But these rising temperatures are changing animals’ life cycles and where they can live. Some species can adapt but, for many, the warmer and wetter weather is harmful.

Wall Butterflies (Glasgow Museums’ collection)

Wall butterflies have experienced a sharp decline in numbers in the UK in recent decades and are now mostly restricted to coastal sites. Research published in 2014 has shown that this decline could be because warmer weather is causing the butterflies’ eggs to hatch too late in the year to survive.

Wall butterflies flying in July and August lay their eggs in August. Normally, their offspring would hatch into caterpillars, feed to build up energy reserves, and then hibernate over winter.

However, warmer conditions encourage the caterpillars to turn into butterflies in September and October instead of hibernating. This generation of butterflies lays its eggs in October, but when the eggs hatch it’s too cold and the caterpillars cannot find any suitable plants to eat. They die before they can hibernate, which means far fewer caterpillars survive winter to start a new generation in spring.

Experiments in Belgium showed that on costal sites the majority of the caterpillars from eggs laid in August followed the traditional breeding cycle and went into hibernation. But at inland sites that were just 1.2°C warmer 100% of the caterpillars born in August turned into butterflies who then produced a ‘lost’ generation born too late to survive winter.

The Wall butterfly cannot adapt to the changing temperatures inland fast enough, and so it is becoming locally extinct in areas where it was once common.

The future
The Capercaillie and the Wall butterfly are two species at risk of extinction in Scotland. There are over 90,000 other animal species in Scotland, and each one is affected by the climate crisis. By changing nature we are changing the landscapes we live in, often for the worse. How can we help? The best ways are to educate ourselves, to take steps to change our own activities, and importantly, to encourage large corporations to do the same.

In this blog post as part of Earth Day we’ve used pictures of Capercaillies and Wall butterflies from Glasgow Museums’ collections. Today, we can still see these species in wild. If we cannot control the climate crisis in the near future then we might only be able to see them as motionless displays in museums.

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