Experts are warning that Britain’s gray long-eared bats are facing extinction because of the loss of the UK’s marshlands. What’s more, this may be just one casualty of increasing habitat loss. Britain’s Bat Conservation Trust, in a new publication called Conserving Grey Long-Eared Bats in our Landscape, has warned that there may be as few as 1,000 gray long-eared bats left in the UK because of the “dramatic decline” of their habitats. The gray long-eared bats, already considered one of Britain’s rarest of species, are generally to be found hunting for food, usually moths, in lowland meadows and marshlands. Their distribution is primarily confined along the south of the British Isles in places like Sussex, Devon, Somerset, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.
From the great yellow bumblebee in Scotland to the potter flower bee clinging on in a few sites on England‘s south coast, many of Britain’s rarest wild bees are in deep trouble, according to a report highlighted in The Guardian.
The study blames intensive farming and urban sprawl which have decimated the flowery meadows that bees feed in as the key factors.
“The way we farm and use land across the UK has pushed many rare bees into serious decline,” said bee expert Prof Simon Potts, at the University of Reading, who led the study commissioned by Friends of the Earth. “I’m calling on the government to act swiftly to save these iconic creatures which are essential to a thriving environment and our food supply”.
The report focused on12 key species across Britain. It found the great yellow bumblebee has disappeared from 80% of its historic UK range and now relies on the unique machair habitat in western Scotland, a flower-rich grassland. On the south coast of England, the range of the solitary potter flower bee, which digs burrows to lay eggs in, has also shrunk dramatically. Britain’s rarest solitary bee, the large mason bee, is on the brink of extinction in Wales, the report found.
“The most pervasive causes of bee species decline are to be found in the way our countryside has changed in the past 60 years,” Potts writes in the report. “Intensification of grazing regimes, an increase in pesticide use, loss of biodiverse field margins and hedgerows, the trend towards sterile monoculture, insensitive development and the sprawl of towns and cities are the main factors in this.” While pesticide use is an issue, the two-year suspension of three neonicotinoid insecticides across the European Union agreed on 29 April will not reverse bee decline unless the other causes are also dealt with, the report warns.
“We need a bee action plan now,” said Sandra Bell, at Friends of the Earth. “These bee species are in real trouble. But people across the UK can help change all that with simple practical actions and by urging their MPs to play their part.” While a majority of EU nations backed the neonicotinoid ban, UK ministers opposed it.
Bees and other pollinators play a crucial role in food production, with three-quarters of global food crops relying on pollination. Britain has over 250 bee species, but numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years and 20 species have become extinct in the UK since 1900. Honeybees kept in hives have also suffered severe losses in recent decades, with pests and diseases such as the varroa mite adding to the problems of habitat loss and pesticide use.
Potts made a range of recommendations to reverse bee decline, including the promotion of sympathetic grazing regimes to ensure bees can feed until early autumn, encouraging farmers to sow wildflower margins in fields and setting quantitative targets for the reduction of all pesticide use. The latter measure was not done in the government’s National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, published in February, despite EU law demanding member states “establish timetables and targets for the reduction of pesticide use”.
Public urged to help save mammals, birds and insects whose habitats and food supplies have come under pressure. The Guardian reports
Britain‘s continued freezing weather is threatening ever greater numbers of wild animals, birds and insects across the country, experts have warned. The current cold spell – one of the longest on record – is particularly affecting creatures that are already struggling to survive the loss of their habitats and changes in climate.
Examples include the hedgehog, which has already suffered a devastating loss of numbers over the past three decades and is now badly affected by the cold weather. In addition, threatened reptiles such as the grass snake and slowworm require sunny, warm conditions when they emerge from hibernation. Such a prospect is still remote, say meteorologists.
Even birds such as the barn owl and tawny owl are facing problems. “Owls like the tawny and barn rely on hearing their prey – mainly voles, shrews and mice – as they scuttle across the ground. But in snow or hardened ground that is very difficult,” said Ben Andrew of the RSPB. “As a result, owls need to hunt during the daytime, leaving them open to attacks by other birds or collisions with motor vehicles.”
Wild animals can deal with harsh weather, experts acknowledge, but the length of the current cold spell is unprecedented, with forecasters warning that temperatures are unlikely to return to their average level until the end of April. By that time, a great deal of harm could have been done to the nation’s wildlife. Frogs have spawned only for their ponds to have frozen over, while many plants and insects are emerging late, which has a knock-on effect on species that feed on them.
Storms are also having an unwelcome impact. “Seabirds along the east coast of the UK – in particular, puffins – are struggling to catch fish in the current conditions,” said Andrew. “They become malnourished and weak and eventually die and are being washed up on shores in their hundreds. Guillemots, razorbills, cormorants and gulls are also affected. In addition, small birds such as goldcrests, long-tailed tits and wrens, which mainly feed on small insects, are finding the current cold weather particularly tricky.”
For hedgehogs, the prolonged cold weather has had a particularly severe impact. “Many animals that went into hibernation in November or December last year are still sleeping,” said Fay Vass, chief executive of the Hedgehog Preservation Society. “The weather is not yet warm enough to wake them. Usually they would be up and about by now.”
The problem was that the longer a hedgehog remained asleep, the weaker it got and the less energy an animal had to restore itself to wakefulness, added Vass. “It depends just how healthy and well-fed an animal was when it went into hibernation. But in general, the longer the cold weather lasts, the greater the number of animals that will not wake up at all.”
The problems facing those hedgehogs that had already woken up from hibernation were no better, said Vass. “They are having a hard time finding any food and we are getting increasing numbers of reports of animals appearing in gardens in daytime desperate for something to eat.”
In the 1980s, there were estimated to be around 30m hedgehogs in the UK. Today, there are fewer than a million, thanks to major erosion of the animals’ habitats. The impact of this year’s long winter and the prospect of continued grim conditions only worsens prospects for this once ubiquitous mammal.
For the nation’s butterflies the situation is less perilous, at least for now. However, continued icy weather could have serious implications. “April is wake-up time for butterflies,” said Richard Fox, surveys manager at Butterfly Conservation. “If they do that when it is still freezing, that could have very serious consequences for their ability to get food. Many could starve if these conditions persist.”
Species that will be the worst affected include the high brown fritillary (Fabriciana adippe). This is Britain’s most threatened butterfly, found in only a few scattered locations in the south and west of England. “Persistent cold weather is only going to makes things even harder for the high brown,” added Fox.
Experts stress that the public can help. The RSPB has urged householders to keep bird feeders regularly topped up with high-energy, high-fat food and to keep water dishes filled. Similarly, the Hedgehog Preservation Society recommends leaving plentiful water supplies and also food, either meaty cat or dog meals or specialist hedgehog food.
Scientists say it is possible that there have never been fewer butterflies in Britain since it was first inhabited by humans.
Fewer butterflies flew in British skies in the miserable summer of 2012 than for thousands of years, leaving several species in danger of extinction from parts of the country.
The country’s most endangered butterfly, the high brown fritillary, saw its small population slump by 46%, while another rare species, the black hairstreak, fell by 98%, as 300,000 fewer butterflies were recorded on the wing compared with 2011.
The Marsh Fritillary population, seen here, dropped by 71%. Photograph: Tim Melling/Butterfly Conservation
Thirteen species experienced their worst year since the scientific monitoring of butterflies began in 1976 with thousands of volunteers counting a record-low abundance of butterflies. With centuries of more anecdotal records showing there were far greater numbers of butterflies in the decades before the 1970s, scientists believe it is possible that there have never been fewer butterflies in Britain since it was first inhabited by humans.
According to Brereton, long-term declines driven by habit loss and agricultural intensification mean that many species live in isolated colonies in small nature reserves, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction after adverse weather. Unless more landscape-scaleconservation management is undertaken, helping butterflies traverse the countryside, species will not be able to recolonise former strongholds.
The high brown fritillary now flies at less than 50 sites in the country after recently becoming extinct in mid-Wales and the West Midlands. There are fears the summer of 2012 could precipitate its disappearance from south Wales, Dartmoor and Exmoor, leaving it clinging on only in the Morecambe Bay area.
The orange-tip population dropped by 34%. Photograph: Butterfly Conservation
Intensive efforts to conserve our rarest species mean that no butterfly has become extinct in Britain since 1979 but conservationists – as well as butterflies – are now struggling to adapt to climate change.
“Some of the rare species aren’t as easy to manage for as they used to be,” said Brereton. “Things that worked 30 years ago aren’t necessarily as successful today because vegetation is changing and the climate is changing.”
For instance, coppicing woodland to help promote the violets on which the high brown and pearl-bordered fritillary caterpillars feed is less successful now because other fast-growing vegetation quickly swamps the flowers. Less snow in the winter means that bracken grows more virulently in the spring and also smothers the violets.
“It shows that if you put the resources in, and get the conservation management right, some of this can even overcome a bad season,” said Brereton. “That’s the good thing about butterflies – if you get the management right, and the weather comes good, they can respond spectacularly.”
Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, said it would be an anxious wait to see whether some butterfly species had clung on to emerge for another summer.
“This coming year we’ll be holding our breath to see whether species like the high brown fritillary have survived in areas where we’ve been working hard to recover habitats,” he said. “We know that butterflies are at the low-point in historical terms.”
Conservationists object to housing in one of UK’s key habitats for the birds. The Independent reports
Plans for one of Britain’s biggest housing developments, of 5,000 homes worth hundreds of millions of pounds, may have to be abandoned because of the presence of nightingales, the birds which sing in the night and have long been a favourite of poets.
The case, which centres on a disused army site in Kent, presents the conflict between the need to build new houses and people’s wish to preserve Britain’s threatened countryside and wildlife in its sharpest possible form. It is likely to lead to a bitter struggle.
The site at Lodge Hill, Chattenden, on the Hoo peninsula north of Chatham, has been earmarked by Medway District Council for what is in effect a new town, which besides its enormous housing quota is intended to provide 5,000 new jobs. The main developers are to be Land Securities, Britain’s biggest commercial property company.
Yet last year scientists discovered that Lodge Hill is probably the best site in the country for the nightingale, which is rapidly disappearing from Britain – its numbers have dropped by more than 90 per cent in the last 40 years.
Today the case came to a head when Natural England, the Government’s wildlife watchdog, declared Lodge Hill to be a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of its nightingale population, which means that development will be much more difficult, and may ultimately be impossible.
The move provoked a furious response from Medway Council, which said it was “deeply unhappy” and was considering its options.
“This is very disappointing news to receive from unelected quangocrats at Natural England,” said the leader of the Conservative-controlled council, Rodney Chambers. “As a local authority we are eager for this scheme, which is on Government-owned land, to progress and deliver the houses and jobs we badly need.”
He added: “What hope does the country have of beating the economic downturn when infrastructure and housing projects like this are being stalled all over the country by the Government’s own agencies?” Land Securities also said it was disappointed with the decision.
However, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gave the decision its full backing. “Natural England is right to designate Lodge Hill as a SSSI in the face of extreme economic pressure,” said Martin Harper, the RSPB director of conservation. “We think it is time for Medway Council and Land Securities to go back to the drawing board and think about where they should build their houses.”
The case is likely to raise strong feelings because the nightingale is one of Britain’s most beloved birds, famed for the midnight song which males sing to attract females, from mid-April to June, after their migratory return from Africa.
So many poets have written about it, in many countries and civilisations from the classical world onwards, that it has been called “the most versified bird in the world”. In English literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Clare and most famously, John Keats, all wrote nightingale poems.
But in England – the nightingale is not found in the rest of Britain – the bird has been undergoing a remorseless decline. The latest estimate is that its population dropped by 52 per cent between 1995 and 2010, yet an examination of earlier records by the British Trust for Ornithology has suggested that over the last 40 years, the bird’s population has actually fallen by more than 90 per cent.
In a recent paper, scientists from the BTO said the nightingale would have been placed on the Red List of birds of conservation concern if this figure had been known about when the list was last revised.
The bird’s range is steadily contracting and the nightingale is now concentrated mainly in the south-east corner of England, especially in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
It was known that Lodge Hill held nightingales, but its real importance was not discovered until last year, when the BTO carried out a national nightingale survey. It was found the core of the site held 69 singing males, and in total the figure was 84.
BTO scientists estimate that Lodge Hill contains about 1.3 per cent of the total national nightingale population, which the survey provisionally estimated to be between 6,250 and 6,550 pairs.
“If there is a better nightingale site in Britain, we don’t know of it,” said the BTO’s Dr Chris Hewson.
Mr Harper said: “Lodge Hill is probably one of the most important sites in the country for nightingales. We expect more than 80 singing males to return to this site in less than a month ready for the breeding season, and they need to have a secure home to come back to.”
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/.
An action plan agreed at a meeting of the government’s emergency response committee, Cobra, will focus on harnessing the help of the public to try to slow the spread of the disease, while searching for trees that have a genetic resistance to the disease that could provide stock for a new breeding programme.
More than 100,000 newly planted and nursery trees with the disease have already been destroyed and that will continue, Paterson said. But mature trees will not be burned, because they are important for other wildlife and may help identify resistant strains. Paterson also promised a “very, very radical” overhaul of his priorities at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), with much more spent on tackling the rising number of exotic diseases affecting plants and trees, and less spent in other areas.
“It won’t be possible to eradicate this disease now that we have discovered it in mature trees in Great Britain,” said Paterson. “However, that does not necessarily mean the end of the British ash. If we can slow its spread and minimise its impact, we will gain time to find those trees with genetic resistance to the disease. Wildlife and countryside groups will play a major role in minimising the impact of the disease and so will the general public, especially when it comes to spotting other areas where the disease has taken hold.”
Martin Harper, RSPBconservation director, said: “The plan is a vital part of stopping the spread of this disease. However, it is essential we do not divert resources away from other vital environmental services. Money must be found from central government coffers or we will simply be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The number of sites identified with ash infected with the Chalara fraxineafungus has risen from 115 on Wednesday to 129 on Thursday, after what Paterson called an “unprecedented” nationwide survey involving around 500 people. The government has already banned the import of ash trees and movement of trees around the country.
Simon Pryor, natural environment director of the National Trust, said: “We welcome the action plan but we are surprised the government is saying that it will not be possible to eradicate the disease. Given our limited understanding of this disease in this country, we believe we should keep an open mind as to whether it may be possible to eradicate it, or at least contain it within the core area in the east.”
Prof Ian Boyd, the Defra’s chief scientific adviser, said: “By next season we could potentially have resistant forms of ash growing, though as very small saplings.” Paterson cautioned against false hope, but said: “The great thing is ash reproduces quite quickly. If we know a small number of trees survived the very intense epidemic in Denmark [where 90% were infected], there must be hope here.” He added: “What is regrettable is that I don’t have a pot of magic potion to go up in a helicopter and spray on infected trees. There is no chemical we know of that kills this fungus.”
Paterson criticised current European Union trade rules: “At the moment forestry and plant products are treated by the European Union as freely tradable products – is that really appropriate? We need to have a radical rethink.” He acknowledged the growing problem of new plant diseases arriving in the UK. “There are a number of very dangerous diseases out there which pose a real threat. I am prepared to consider radical proposals to protect the woodland environment and look forward to seeing Boyd’s interim proposals at the end of November.”
Ash dieback may have arrived in Britain after spores were blown on the wind from continental Europe, or via infected trees imported by the horticultural trade, or both. But Boyd said the “balance of probabilities is swinging towards it being wind-blown”, based on the pattern of known infections in the wild, which are clustered in the south-east of England. “We can do nothing about that,” he said, noting that wind-blown spores may extend the infected area by 20-30km a year.
Ministers have been criticised for being slow to act, after the Horticultural Trade Association asked government to ban ash imports in 2009. However, at that time the fungus causing ash dieback was thought to be already endemic in the UK, meaning no ban was possible. In 2010, scientists realised that the deadly fungus was in fact a similar but distinct species. The first British case of the disease was confirmed in February 2012 in a tree imported from the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire. In 2011, trade unions at the Forestry commission warned that its ability to tackle tree diseases would be hit by the 25% cuts to the agency.
Map – ash tree dieback in the UK, 7 November
Paterson said he had met his predecessors as environment secretary, Caroline Spelman and Hilary Benn, this week. He also appeared to rule out financial aid to affected plant businesses: “It has never been policy to pay compensation on plant losses.”