Farmland species struggling to move north

  • 20
  • MAY
  • 2022

Moths struggling to move north to adapt to climate change in the UK could be assisted by pinpointing areas where habitat restoration can give them a smoother journey.

A new study from Rothamsted with the University of Liverpool, Butterfly Conservation and the University of Reading combined data gathered in part from the Rothamsted Insect Survey with new computer simulations to predict the movement of different moth species in a changing climate. 

The research, published in the journal Global Change Biology, revealed that some moth species were only moving northwards across certain British landscapes, putting them at greater risk. 

Farmland and suburban moths in particular, which are crucial for both pollination and as food to support birds and bats, struggled to move across landscapes. 

Dr Chris Shortall, entomologist at Rothamsted Research and co-author on the study, said the research had helped identify landscape features that seemed to slow the movements of moths. 

“The restricted expansion of farmland moths is surprising and shows it is not safe to assume that such relatively tolerant species face no geographical barriers to range expansion. There may be ways to adapt farming practices to improve species ability to move through these landscapes.” 

The team found that landscapes with hills or varying temperatures acted as bottlenecks, slowing the movement of farmland and suburban moths.  

The reasons for this are unclear, although it may be that hills present a physical barrier to dispersal, or that upland areas contain fewer hedgerows, nectar sources and larval food plants. 

Dr Jenny Hodgson, lead author from the University of Liverpool, said: “These new computer models will help us to target habitat restoration in the most effective places to help species adapt to climate change by shifting their ranges across the country.” 

There is widespread concern that UK wildlife will fail to track climate change if habitat is too scarce or insufficiently connected. However, up until now there has been a lack of capacity to predict the movement of species across landscapes under climate change. 

Professor Tom Oliver, an ecologist at the University of Reading and a co-author of the study, said: “Previous research has shown how severe fragmentation of habitats in our UK landscapes is preventing the ability of species to shift their ranges in response to climate warming. We urgently need targeted habitat restoration to help species adapt to climate change. 

“Utilising predictions like these would enable us to effectively create moth motorways, helping endangered moth species reach new, more suitable regions more quickly in their bid to survive.” 

Data on the movement of 54 southerly-distributed moth species from 1985 onwards was gathered from the Rothamsted Research Light trap network and the National Moth Recording Scheme to test results from computer modelled data.

Dr Zoë Randle, the Senior Survey's Officer at Butterfly Conservation and a co-author on the study, said: “The findings from this work have great potential to maximise the impact of conservation action, habitat restoration and tree planting by targeting these environmental enhancements in the right places. We are in the grip of a biodiversity and climate crisis, time is of the essence and the findings of this research can really help make a difference in helping moths and other species in these communities that are undergoing range expansion due to climate change.”

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.