Habitat changes impact game populations in various ways. Climate change may alter the distribution, numbers and interspecific relationships of game animals.
Climate change affects factors such as the timing of migration and timing and length of reproductive seasons as well as the reproduction rate of game animals. Interspecific relationships, such as predator-prey interactions, would also change in the ecosystems. The changes can be seen relatively fast in the relative abundances of different species, while changes in species composition emerge more slowly.
In a habitat changed by climate change, the range of species native to Finland will become more limited, moving to the north. When new species spread to new areas, they invade the habitat of the native species, leaving them less space.
On the other hand, southern and foreign species will move to Finland as the climate changes. For example the European hare has already benefited from warming climate, whereas mountain hares are becoming increasingly rare in southern and western Finland. This decline is attributable to the fact that snow is no longer covering the ground in winter in the southernmost parts of Finland. The color of hare’s fur changes in response to the number of daylight hours and a white hare on snowless ground is easy prey. Unlike mountain hares, European hares stay the same colour throughout the year.
Climate change poses new threats to species dependent on snow and ice. For example Baltic ringed seals will struggle to reproduce when mother seals cannot dig nests in snow. In addition, seal pups will struggle to thrive due to the loss of marine ice cover.
What does Luke do?
Luke monitors the abundances of game animals extensively and keeps comprehensive records of the prevalence of different species. Hunting regulation is virtually the only way by which humans can affect the numbers of game mammals, so hunting of declining species must be restricted. Monitoring programmes often provide information on both the size of the populations as well as offspring production. This information helps researchers understand the often complex mechanisms that affect changes in the populations.
In addition, Luke examines the impact of environmental changes, such as habitat loss, climate change, hunting and predator-prey interactions on waterfowl.
Summary of climate change impacts
- Interspecific competition for food changes and diseases become more common.
- Number of deer might increase especially in southern Finland, which would improve the food situation of the European lynx, even though the lack of crusted snow will make hunting more difficult for the lynx. Wolves hunt more successfully in snowy winters.
- Moose will spread to new areas as snow cover becomes thinner. European roe deer and white-tailed deer might benefit from winters with little to no snow.
- Other species that are expected to thrive in less snowy conditions include several southern species that have been introduced by people, such as European hare, European rabbit and wild boar.
- Grouse may suffer from scarce snow, and their chicks are vulnerable to changing weather conditions.
- Wolverines may struggle to nest and bears will hibernate for a shorter amount of time due to shorter winters.
Small predators might spread northwards and become more numerous.
- Species that have adapted to cold and snowy conditions, such as the Saimaa ringed seal, grey seal and Baltic ringed seal, might suffer as they will struggle to reproduce in winters with little to no snow.
- Mild winters and unfrozen water areas may make it possible for waterfowl to winter in Finland. Earlier onset of spring affects the timing of nesting of certain waterfowl and possibly also breeding success.
- Animals that adopt a white coat during the winter period, such as mountain hare, willow grouse and stoat, will be easier for their predators to spot in a snowless environment.
- Hunting may be more difficult when there are few tracks in snow or when the visible tracks are old.
- Monitoring of the population sizes of several important mammals is based on snow track counts along wildlife triangles. The counts have been difficult to perform in southern and south-west Finland during winters with little to no snow, and in the future conducting the counts might be difficult elsewhere in Finland as well.