Integrated European
Long-Term Ecosystem, critical zone and
socio-ecological Research

Soils, butterflies and beetles respond to changing pressures on the UK environment

6 November 2009

The first major review of trends in terrestrial ecology at twelve key sites within the UK Environmental Change Network between 1993 and 2007 is published today in the journal Biological Conservation. Soils, vegetation and animal communities all show indications of responses to environmental change over the study period.                

ECN is a member network of LTER-Europe. The research was carried out by scientists from a number of ECN sponsoring organisations: Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Natural England, North Wyke Research, Forest Research, Rothamsted Research, Durham University, ADAS UK Ltd., Macaulay Institute and Countryside Council for Wales.

All the ECN sites studied experienced increases in temperature over the analysis period. The acidity of rainfall fell sharply, particularly at sites where atmospheric pollution is highest in the south of the country. Both these patterns are characteristic of wider changes across the UK. Reductions in the acidity of rainfall were associated with a trend toward less acidic soils. Trends in nitrogen pollution differed between sites, but levels of ammonia (a nitrogen-containing gas released from intensive agriculture that acts as a plant nutrient source) remain high at some sites.

Butterfly species characteristic of warmer regions tended to increase at northern, upland sites, consistent with an effect of increasing temperatures. In contrast, ground beetles associated with cooler northern and upland areas showed declining populations. Wetter weather in more recent years may explain a decline in short-lived “weedy” plants at lowland sites, reversing an increase associated with drought in the early years of monitoring. However, there was no clear evidence of changes in plant communities in response to decreased soil acidity.

Network coordinator and co-author Don Monteith from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said, He added, “By combining our observations with more widely spread surveys of individual plant and animal groups, and by encouraging the use of Environmental Change Network sites for experiments, we greatly enhance our ability to detect and attribute the causes of environmental change. This is essential for the development of conservation policy and management in the 21st century."

Examples of species changes over the first 15 years of ECN monitoring

Many British butterflies are at the northern limit of their range and may, therefore, be favoured by current climate change trends. Species that appear to be increasing in numbers at some upland ECN sites include the peacock (Inachis io), green-veined white (Pieris napi) and dark green fritillary (Argynnis aglaja).

Some examples of ground beetle species that are declining at upland sites include Calathus melanocephalus, Patrobus atrorufusand Calathus micropterous.

At five of the seven lowland ECN sites, data indicate a decline in chickweed (Stellaria media), Annual meadow grass (Poa annua) and Common mouse ear (Cerastium fontanum), all ‘weedy’ (ruderal) plant species.

Pipestrelle bats (Pipistrellus pipistrellus sensu lato) have shown an overall increase across the network and at some individual sites, in line with similar results from National Bat Monitoring Programme surveys.

In their paper, the research team state that the first fifteen years of the Environmental Change Network has provided a very clearly defined ecological baseline for these sites against which future changes can be judged and conservation responses developed. The data from the Environmental Change Network are already beginning to pick up signals of change in a range of measurements at contrasting sites, raising a number of important questions that the scientific team are now investigating in greater detail.

Lead author Dr Mike Morecroft, Principal Climate Change Specialist at Natural England said, “Climate change is one of the major contemporary issues in ecology and presents the most profound challenge for conservation in the coming decades. The need for reliable monitoring of environmental change, both physical and biological, is greater than ever.” He added, “Our analysis does suggest that climate change is starting to influence some aspects of the ecology of the UK. It also shows that climate change must be addressed in the context of a wide range of other environmental issues, such as changes in air pollution.”

Additional information

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology issued a press release for this story. Further information for journalists can be obtained from the CEH press office.

The research is published on 6 November 2009 in the journal Biological Conservation . The paper reference is: M.D. Morecroft, C.E. Bealey, D.A. Beaumont, S. Benham, D.R. Brooks, T.P. Burt, C.N.R. Critchley, J. Dick, N.A. Littlewood, D.T. Monteith, W.A. Scott, R.I. Smith, C. Walmsley and H. Watson (2009) The UK Environmental Change Network: Emerging trends in the composition of plant and animal communities and the physical environment. Biological Conservation, 142/12: 2814 – 2832

The paper is available online (subscription to Elsevier ScienceDirect required). The DOI number is: doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2009.07.004

The UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) is the UK’s long-term, integrated environmental monitoring and research programme. ECN gathers information about the pressures on and responses to environmental change in physical, chemical and biological systems. Coordination by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology is part-funded by Defra, and supported by a consortium of 13 further sponsoring organisations and seven research organisations. ECN provides data relevant to issues such as climate change, air and water pollution, land use change and biodiversity loss. ECN was established in 1992 and consists of 12 terrestrial sites in the UK. A further 45 freshwater sites also contribute data to the ECN central database.

For further information please contact Don Monteith, ECN Coordinator, CEH Lancaster (tel: 01524 595840, e-mail: