Changing Habitats

Current Activity

Habitat presence and quality is a controlling factor in the distribution and abundance of species. Widespread post-war habitat destruction led to a decline in many species and was a driver for the BRC’s establishment. Now, changes to habitats are often more subtle, brought about by factors such as fluctuating grazing pressure, eutrophication or changing climate. The recording schemes are essential in documenting the effect of these changes and in understanding the habitat requirements of species.



Key Outputs

The publication of atlases provides the opportunity to analyse long-term changes in range in response to habitat changes and other variables. Codification of attributes, as in PLANTATT147 and BRYOATT148, allows species to be linked to their habitats, an important approach being extended to other species groups. Changes in popular groups with rapidly changing ranges, such as butterflies, are summarised every five years. Records in the BRC database are available for analysis in between major, ‘state of the nation’ reports.

Catastrophic decline of a habitat specialist: Argynnis adippe, the High Brown Fritillary

Map showing declining distribution of high brown fritillary

Figure: Jim Asher, Butterfly Conservation

The High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) requires warm microhabitats where the larval foodplants, various species of violet, occur with bracken; they include south-facing rocky slopes, coppice woodlands or woodland clearings. Its decline mirrors the loss of coppiced woodland and bracken/grassland mosaics with low intensity grazing by cattle or ponies.

Expansion of a species able to colonise newly available habitats: Hairy Dragonfly

Map showing expansion of hairy dragonfly distribution

Figure: Steve Cham, British Dragonfly Society

As shown by the atlas published in 2014, the distribution of the Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) was mainly coastal in Britain until recent years when it has colonised a number of inland gravel pits that were excavated in the 1960s and have acquired a mature vegetation cover. It may also have benefited from the more favourable climate in recent decades.

National Plant Monitoring Scheme

Photo of surveying for the natinoal plant monitoring scheme

Photo: Lucy Hulmes, CEH.

The National Plant Monitoring Scheme was designed and developed my UKCEH, BSBI, Plantlife and JNCC

The Scheme aims to fill a gap in terrestrial habitat monitoring by focusing on the abundance of plant species within plots for a range of vegetation types. This should enable changes in plant diversity to be detected earlier than is possible with traditional biological recording conducted at broader scales.

General recording has demonstrated habitat change effects on species with a very narrow habitat requirement, such as arable weeds or chalk grassland butterflies. Effects on species with a broader habitat range are harder to measure. Allocating records more precisely to habitats make it possible to investigate the effects of habitat modification on species with broader requirements, and identify changes in their habitat requirements in response to changing climate. This is a rationale of the National Plant Monitoring Scheme.


630 Botham M. S., Fernandez-Ploquin Emily, Brereton Tom M., Harrower Colin A, Roy D. B., Heard M. S. (2015) Lepidoptera communities across an agricultural gradient: how important are habitat area and habitat diversity in supporting high diversity?. ,
154 Fox Richard, Oliver Tom H., Harrower Colin A, Parsons M.S., Thomas Chris D., Roy D. B. (2014) Long-term changes in the distribution of British moths consistent with opposing and synergistic effects of climate and land use change. ,
580 Powney Gary D., Preston Christopher D., Purvis A., van Landuyt Wouter, Roy D. B. (2014) Can trait-based analyses of changes in species distribution be transferred to new geographic areas?. ,
582 Powney Gary D., Rapacciulo Giovanni, Preston Christopher D., Purvis Andy, Roy D. B. (2014) A phylogenetically-informed trait-based analysis of range change in the vascular plant flora of Britain. ,
583 Bennie J, Hodgson Jenny A., Lawson Callum R., Holloway Crispin T.R., Roy D. B., Brereton Tom M., Thomas Chris D., Wilson Robert J. (2013) Range expansion through fragmented landscapes under a variable climate. ,
633 Hill Mark O, Harrower Colin A, Preston Christopher D. (2013) Spherical k-means clustering is good for interpreting multivariate species occurrence data. ,
533 Preston Christopher D., Hill Mark O, Pilkington Sharon, Pywell Richard F. (2009) The effect of disturbance on the bryophyte flora of Salisbury Plain, western Europe's largest chalk grassland. ,
528 Brereton Tom M., Warren Martin S., Roy D. B., Stewart Katherine (2008) The changing status of the Chalkhill Blue butterfly Polyommatus coridon in the UK: the impacts of conservation policies and environmental factors. ,
148 Hill Mark O, Preston Christopher D., Bosanquet Sam D.S., Roy D. B. (2007) BRYOATT - Attributes of British and Irish Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts With Information on Native Status, Size, Life Form, Life History, Geography and Habitat. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Huntingdon
148 Hill Mark O, Preston Christopher D., Bosanquet Sam D.S., Roy D. B. (2007) BRYOATT - Attributes of British and Irish Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts - Spreadsheet. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Huntingdon