Many of Britain’s best loved animals and birds are likely to be less abundant this year after suffering heavy losses in the deluge of rain and flooding over the past few months. The Daily Telegraph reports
The country may be starting to dry off after the second wettest year on record, but it seems the impact of the downpours will be felt by Britain’s wildlife for some time.
Experts are warning that many of the country’s best loved animals and birds face a slow recovery after 2012’s sodden weather left their habitats destroyed and food hard to come by.
Songbirds, butterflies, water voles and kingfishers are all expected to be less abundant than normal this year.
Conservationists say that many already vulnerable species are among the worst to be effected and fear that if conditions this year are as bad as 2012, it could permanently damage their populations.
To compound the problems, recent unseasonably warm weather presents a further danger, encouraging insects such as bees, as well as hibernating animals such as dormice and hedgehogs, to be more active – raising fears that they will not have enough energy to survive until spring.
The mild conditions have seen daffodils and primroses already flowering in southern England, around two months early.
Neil Wyatt, chief executive of the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, said: “When we have a wet winter like this, it always hits certain things very hard butterflies are particularly prone as fungi can get them and they essentially rot.
“This will have a visible effect in the summer as there will be far fewer butterflies around. Bees have suffered terribly over the past 12 months and some bee keepers have reported to me seeing their hives down by 60 per cent.”
Ornithologists have reported poor breeding seasons for migrant warblers such as the chiffchaff, blackcap (below) and whitethroat as the wet, chilly summer left them struggling to find enough caterpillars and insects while clutches of eggs also failed.
Chiffchaffs produced 40 per cent fewer young last year when compared to the average over the past five years, according to preliminary survey data from the British Trust for Ornithology. Blackcaps suffered a drop of 62 per cent in the number of young they produced.
These species are already in severe decline due to changing conditions in their winter migratory homes in northern Africa.
Resident birds such as blue tits and great tits have also suffered due to low levels of food. Chicks leaving the nest also suffered poor survival rates as their immature plumage increased their risk of becoming waterlogged.
Chaffinches had a poor breeding season, producing 57 per cent fewer young last year, and reed warblers produced 35 per cent fewer.
There are also fears for woodland birds such as the coal tit as the wet weather continues. Trees have produced poor crops of seeds, and pine cones do not open unless it is dry enough.
Malcolm Ausden, principal ecologist at the RSPB, said: “Many of these birds can breed very well when conditions are good, so there is a chance they will bounce back this year, but if we get a second bad year, then it could have a more long term impact.
“Ground nesting birds like black grouse and capercaillie have had a particularly poor production of chicks over the summer as it was so cold and wet, so we can expect to see fewer of them too.”
John Hughes, development manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, added: “Sadly, it is likely to be the little birds who will be losers as they are going to struggle to find enough food to get through winter.
“If they are unable to dry out they can get hypothermic and die.
“It has been incredibly warm for this time of year… That will tend to wake up hibernating animals but there is nothing around for them to eat.
“If the weather gets colder, they might not survive the winter. Hedgehogs have already been declining so rapidly, this will not help them.”
Provisional figures from the Met Office reveal that an average of 52.38in (133cm) of rain fell throughout Britain during 2012, just ¼in (6mm) less than the wettest year, 2000. Extreme downpours occurred around once every 70 days, bringing heavy flooding.
High river levels have hit bank dwelling species particularly hard, with kingfishers’ burrows destroyed, and water voles and otters fleeing rising waters.
Darren Tansley, Water for Wildlife officer at Essex Wildlife Trust, said it had received reports of large numbers of otters killed by traffic as flooding forced them to cross roads rather than going under bridges.
“A lot of species along the river are well adapted to flooding during the winter,” he said. “But it is the fact we have had it all year that has caused real issues.
“Small mammals and birds have been hammered by floods at the time when there are vulnerable young around.”
Farmers have also reported having trouble planting and spraying crops due to the waterlogged ground, which is expected to hit barley and wheat yields.
Meanwhile the wet, warm winter could also lead to some foreign plant species, such as the water fern – which can grow to choke streams and small rivers – flourishing if there is not enough frost to keep them under control.
For more about NAEE’s Water Year – keep an eye on http://www.naee.org.uk/.
- Birds come down to earth in the year of the slug (independent.co.uk)
- Wild Weather leads to the ‘Year of the Slug’ (ntpressoffice.wordpress.com)
- 2012 second wettest year on record (independent.co.uk)
- Met Office: 2012 was second wettest year on record (telegraph.co.uk)
- Official: 2012 was (nearly) the wettest year on record (yorkshirepost.co.uk)
- Wildlife 2012: Slugs and orchids thrive but blossom and bees are washed out (guardian.co.uk)
- Ferry Meadows, Peterborough: Floodplains that should remain just that (guardian.co.uk)