60 years of changes – winners and losers in Swedish nature

Mayviva is one of the species that has declined in Sweden over the past 60 years. Photo: Alistair Auffret
  • Article from SLU
  • Subject: Environment & climate

Mayflies, cuckoo’s shoes and butter balls have become fewer, while plants that like heat have managed to spread. This is shown by a study that looked at how over a thousand plant species coped with the combination of overgrown land and increasing average temperatures in Sweden.

It is well known that biodiversity is affected by the loss of valuable habitats and by a warming climate, but it has been more difficult to show whether these threats reinforce each other and accelerate the changes in nature.

Now researchers at the Swedish University of Agriculture, SLU, have investigated how Swedish plants have reacted to changes over the past 60 years.

The spread of plant species was followed

The researchers have compared older floras from Bohuslän, Medelpad, Uppland and Öland with more modern inventories. Through this, the researchers were able to calculate how the distribution of more than 1,200 plant species changed between the first half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.

During this period, grazing and mowing ceased on large areas of species-rich grasslands, i.e. meadows and natural pastures that have subsequently grown back or been planted with trees. At the same time, the climate has become almost 1.5 degrees warmer.

Juniper bushes in pasture

Old pastures need to be cared for and restored in order for grassland species to survive in the long term. Photo: Alistair Auffret

The researchers discovered that species associated with old pastures and meadows, such as mayweed, butterballs and cross sedge, have reduced their ranges.

– We already know that we have lost many grasslands in Sweden, but to see how this has affected the regional distributions of grassland species is worrying, says Alistair Auffret, docent in ecology at SLU.

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Northern species declined

The analyzes also showed that species with a relatively northern distribution in Sweden were more likely to reduce their distributions. On the other hand, it was better for heat-loving plants and species that already had a relatively large distribution from the start. They could take advantage of the rising temperatures.

Many of the species that have increased their distribution are also more closely associated with forest environments. However, it is not about plants that need old natural forest, but about species that can establish themselves quickly on the abandoned and overgrown grasslands.

It has also done well for plants brought in by humans, such as lupine and giant balsam.

– We saw that the species that did better mainly filled the gaps in their distribution, while plants that prefer cooler temperatures declined the most in the south, says Alistair Auffret.

It has not gone well for all forest-dwelling species. The cuckoo orchid has also become less widespread over time. Photo: Alistair Auffret

Double setback

An important finding was that the combination of grassland loss and climate warming meant a double whammy for some species, and extra benefit for others.

For example, the range of grassland specialists declined most in warmer areas. When the researchers investigated how all species within 5 x 5 kilometer “landscape squares” were affected by the environmental changes that had taken place, this interaction became even clearer.

The risk of local extinctions was lower where more grasslands were preserved, but that effect disappeared in the warmer areas. On the other hand, most new species were able to establish themselves in areas where both overgrowth and warming had been great.

– It is clear that there are both winners and losers in nature, and it is important to take care of the losers. At the same time as the global fossil emissions need to be significantly reduced, we in Sweden need to maintain and restore our valuable habitats, says Alistair Auffret.

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Climate warming has compounded plant responses to habitat conversion in northern Europe, Nature Communications.


Alistair Auffret, university lecturer at the Department of Ecology, Unit for Landscape Ecology, Swedish University of Agriculture, [email protected]

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