Time for slugging it out

Last year was a difficult year for much of our wildlife, especially winged insects which struggle in wet summers.  It set 2012 up poorly.

This year, a dry winter and sunny March ushered in widespread hose pipe bans – the only effective rain dance yet devised by mankind.  Sure enough, we endured the wettest April to June period on record, and the first half of July has been equally dire.  A nine day hot spell in late May brought some respite.

The bird-nesting season has at best been poor, though individual birds live long enough to be able to miss the odd breeding season.  On the Farne Islands, many puffin burrows have been drowned, and nests of other sea birds have been swept off cliffs.  At Strangford Lough, in Northern Ireland, arctic, common and sandwich terns may fail to raise any young this year.  On swollen rivers, nests of moorhens and swans have been swept away, and kingfisher and sand martin holes flooded.

It hasn’t been much better for our garden birds, with parents abandoning nests due to bad weather or failing to find enough food for nestlings.  Bats and insect-feeding birds have been particularly badly affected, due to shortages of caterpillars and winged insects.

Butterflies, bees, hoverflies and other beautiful or beneficial insects have all been scarce.  Small isolated colonies of such weather-sensitive insects are likely to die out this year, and recolonisation may take one or two good summers.  Few insects are visiting the garden buddleia bushes at present.

There are always winners and losers though, and this summer the main winners seem to be slugs, and nettles, and surprising, some of the orchids.  It has been a particularly good summer for the exquisite bee orchid.  Plagues of midges and mosquitoes may appear if the weather warms up.

The great hope now, of course, is that the Olympics will generate lovely weather – when people are indoors glued to their TV sets.

By Matthew Oates, a naturalist for the National Trust

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