Wild Weather leads to the ‘Year of the Slug’

Unsettled, unpredictable and at times chaotic weather has meant that this year has been hugely challenging for wildlife, according to experts at the National Trust.

Whilst birds and insects have struggled, slugs and orchids have done well throughout Britain in our special places.

An image of a Bee Orchid

Orchids have had a good year.

 Matthew Oates, Naturalist at the National Trust, said:

“This has been a highly polarised year, with wildlife in the places we look after doing either remarkably well or incredibly badly.

“In general, plants and slugs were the big winners and insects the big losers. But even in this wet summer some insects did surprisingly well, at least in a few places.

“Our wildlife, farmers, horticulturalists and rural tourism and recreation industries are all long overdue a good summer, having suffered poor ones since 2006.

“Surely we are due a good one next year?”

It was a spring of two halves with the warmest March since 1910 and the implementation of drought orders across England followed by the wettest April on record.

 The April downpour had a detrimental impact on fruit harvests in the autumn as the spring rains washed away the blossom resulting in a very bad year for English apples across the board and autumn fruits and berries such as sloes and holly berries.

Another poor summer has hit British wildlife hard as it struggled to cope with the very wet conditions and a distinct lack of long dry summer days though some species have gone against the flow and thrived.

It was a bad summer for the insect pollinators and even those flowers that were pollinated have struggled to set fruit in the ongoing we weather with a knock on affect for birds and animals that depends on these crucial food sources.

Bees, butterflies and hoverflies suffered a set back this year because of the mixed weather becoming generally very scarce, though there were welcome exceptions in some places where the Chalkhill blue and dark-green fritillary did spectacularly well.

The good news for summer picnickers this year was that there were hardly any common wasps.

The one big winner in 2012 has been the slug with reports of a giant Spanish super slug invading our back gardens. One impact of the damp conditions has been rapid grass growth with a knock on effect for smaller plants (such as bastard toadflax) and insects including grasshoppers, which need warm bare ground pockets.

Orchids have also been big winners this year. They’ve had a fantastic year almost everywhere, with reports of stunning flowerings from all over England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

 It’s been a very patchy breeding year for birds with many nests being abandoned due to bad weather and/or shortage of food, even in gardens. A lot of storm and flood destruction, to cliff nesting birds and birds that nest along riverbanks.

A graph showing the weather patterns of 2012

The ups and downs of this year.

Mammals have also had a mixed year, with bats having an especially difficult time. Water mammals have also suffered greatly, with water vole holes and otter spraints (making recording difficult) being washed away in the heavy floods. Animal sanctuaries are now being inundated with underfed hedgehogs.  Dormice also had a poor breeding season.

A more predictable autumn saw a quite late display of autumn colour as the leaves turned ahead of the winter months. Read more on our main website article.

Charties and Coops urge MPs to support community energy

A coalition of civil society organisations with over 12 million members is urging all MPs to support community-owned and controlled renewable projects in today’s Energy Bill debate. They are concerned that the draft Energy Bill would stifle the growth of the burgeoning community energy sector if changes are not made.

The group which includes: The Co-operative; the National Trust; the National Federation of Women’s Institutes; Transition Towns; and Groundwork, have written to all MPs asking them to support a community approach to the UK’s future energy needs.

The group believes that community ownership of energy projects empowers communities to collectively decide upon and run their own energy projects in locally appropriate ways. It also benefits the local economy by keeping the profits generated within the community, often being spent on tackling fuel poverty or other social problems.

The MPs have been contacted as the Energy Bill is debated in Parliament today (December 19). The organisations are concerned that the legislation has been designed for large commercial developers and could exclude communities from participating in the new energy market.

In Germany, an estimated 15% of all renewable electricity generation is owned by local communities, with over 600 energy cooperatives. In the UK this is around 1% but there are hundreds of energy groups with plans to generate renewable power.

Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals at The Co-operative, said: “Communities across the UK stand ready to lead a community energy revolution but their opportunity to grow could be extinguished if the Energy Bill stays as it is. Community energy must be treated fairly in electricity market reform and allowed to flourish as it has elsewhere in Europe.

“Community ownership is proven to increase public support for local renewable energy projects, which is vital if the UK is to meet its energy and climate objectives. A recent opinion poll we commissioned found that opposition to projects, including wind turbines, drops from 22% to just 7% if the project belongs to the community.”

Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprise Director at the National Trust said “We know that when communities secure a stake in energy projects they are much more reassured that their own beautiful local landscapes and villages that they love can embrace the proposals. Community energy can help empower local people to take control of their own energy futures and in a style that maintains and even enhances what makes local places special and cherished. We want to work with the Government to support a big increase in community owned renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes.”

Reform of the green farming schemes needed to benefit farmers and environment

A report commissioned by two of Britain’s biggest farmers suggests that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform proposals present an opportunity to improve existing Entry Level Stewardship in England.

The changes to agri-environment schemes suggested in the report would create a more environmentally, financially and socially sustainable approach to agriculture, helping farmers, the environment and wider rural communities.

A view of rolling countryside

The ‘CAP’ has a huge effect on Britain’s special places.

With over 220,000 hectares of farmland between them, the National Trust’s and Co-operative Farms’ report comes at a time of intense speculation about the future of CAP, with fiercely debated proposals to ‘green’ farm subsidy payments, growing EU pressure to cut funding for rural development schemes and domestic calls to “rebalance” rural development spending “in favour of competitiveness.”

Land Stewardship in England Post 2013 offers a series of practical recommendations to improve agri-environment schemes, with transferable lessons for other countries.

The report analyses the perceived gap between the entry-level scheme and the higher tier, the opportunities to enhance the upland farming scheme and the overall implications of the proposed ‘greening’ of Pillar 1.  As a whole, the report’s recommendations could help to ensure that money invested in agri-environment delivers for public benefit, ‘future-proofs’ farming and protects the natural resource base upon which the English countryside and agriculture depend. Patrick Begg, Director of Rural Enterprise at the National Trust, said:

“Successful, long-term farming is about the careful stewardship of precious natural resources.  Without that principle in place, it’s hard to see how we can continue to produce food and the other natural services that our land offers: clean water, locked up carbon, fuel for heat and power and productive soils.  We believe that the economic future of farming will increasingly centre on how this stewardship is delivered and supported.”

“For British farms to remain in business we need to act now to secure a future for them.  ‘Future-proofing’ farming will need us to direct support payments to activities that benefit nature and the wider environment and in ways that work with existing farming systems. We need to move environmental stewardship into the heart of the standard farm business and not leave it as a bolt-on, which is how agri-environment schemes have often operated in the past.”

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently reviewing how it will deliver the next generation of rural development schemes, which will run between 2014 and 2020. But it is likely that the Government will have less funding available. Defra currently chooses to spend the vast majority (80 per cent) of its EU ‘rural development’ funding allocation on agri-environment schemes, covering 70 per cent of farmland in England. David Watson, Head of Arable Operations for The Co-operative Farms, added:

“Our report shows that any new policy for environmentally sustainable farming must be practical, straightforward and deliverable.”

“We believe the recommendations of this report will provide genuine food-for-thought for Defra and Natural England, the two bodies responsible for the design and delivery of agri-environment schemes in England.”

“To secure a viable future for farming and rural communities, we must refresh entry-level stewardship in a way that not only makes it fit-for-purpose, but that ensures it becomes the cornerstone of rural development. This in itself would provide the continued justification for maintaining the current level of spending on agri-environment.”

 A number of individual farmers and organisations were consulted in the preparation of the report, including the NFU, Country Land & Business Association (CLA), Campaign for the Farmed Environment, Tenant Farmers’ Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

It also builds on the Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective (MESME) initiative and is intended to inform Defra’s work to develop the new Rural Development Programme for England 2014-2020.

‘Extinct’ oil beetle found on National Trust land

A beetle hotspot on the South Devon coast has re-written the record books for the second time in six years with the discovery of an oil beetle which was last seen in 1906 and thought to have been extinct for over one hundred years.

An image of an oil beetle sitting on greenery

The Mediterranean oil beetle

Before its rediscovery, the Mediterranean oil beetle (Meloe mediterraneus) had been found in the South East of England in Essex and Kent. The beetle was last recorded in Kent in 1906, and had not been seen since, until rediscovered this autumn. Local naturalist John Walters found the oil beetle on National Trust land between Bolt Head and Bolt Tail on the beautiful south Devon coast, while carrying out a study for the charity Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust.

“The 2 to 3 centimetre long matt-black beetle resembles the rare Rugged oil beetle, but the beetles I found were much larger and their larvae were a different colour. I investigated further and was amazed to find that they were a ‘long lost’ species.”

Leading beetle expert, Darren Mann of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History confirmed the discovery making this the first record in the UK for over 100 years, and the first ever for South West England. Andrew Whitehouse, Buglife’s South West Manager said:

“The rediscovery of this beetle is great news, bringing the total number of oil beetles species in the UK up to five. However all of our oil beetle species remain under threat. The loss of wildflower-rich habitats and the decline in wild bee populations, upon which these beetles depend, are the main threats to oil beetles in the UK. Buglife is working to better understand the needs of oil beetles and how best to conserve them.”

Andy Foster, our Biological Survey Team Leader, said:

“This is remarkable news, following the discovery of the rare Short-necked oil beetle from the same area of south Devon only a few years ago, and demonstrates the value of detailed studies which can lead to such unexpected results.

One can’t help feeling there are other colonies out there just waiting to be found – it’s crucial that we understand where these threatened species survive and understand more about their habitat requirements.”

Buglife’s national oil beetle conservation project is a partnership project with the National Trust and Oxford University Museum of Natural History and is funded through Natural England’s Species Recovery Programme.

“Too little, too late” in Government’s ash dieback plans, says National Trust

In response to the Government’s control plan on ash dieback announced today, Dr Simon Pryor, Director of the Natural Environment at the National Trust, said:

“It is good to see the Government stating its overall commitment to reducing the rate of spread of the disease, but we are deeply concerned that this commitment is not backed up with strong actions.

“The limited actions and weak commitments set out in the plan will not be enough to achieve the aim of controlling the spread of the disease. It’s far too little, too late.

Ash tree“We are alarmed to see the Government is even wavering about continuing its programme of tracing, testing and destroying the infected young ash trees that have been planted in the last few years across the country. It is also disappointing to see that the Government is proposing almost no action in areas of the country already infected.

“Our collective knowledge of this disease is limited, and it is good to see a workshop on research priorities is being proposed, but we are concerned that this is entirely focused on breeding resistance rather than on techniques that could reduce the rate of spread.

“The Action Plan refers repeatedly to the cost of any intervention now, but makes very little reference to the costs that farmers, woodland owners, local authorities, gardeners and the Government itself will face as this disease spreads across the country.

“These costs include making safe dying trees, replanting lost trees and loss in value of ash timber. This will account for tens of millions of pounds over the next decade.

“We know there is no certainty that any interventions now will work but we believe there is sufficient evidence that it is worth trying.

“Through this Action Plan we’re effectively surrendering the British landscape to this disease before we’ve fully investigated ways of reducing rate of spread and buying time.”

The National Trust is calling on the Government to rapidly beef up its commitments before publication of the updated plan in March. It would like to see stronger commitment to three critical actions:

• Completing the task of tracing and destroying all infected ash trees planted across the country in the last five years
• Leading a more intensive survey of the core infected area so we know more about the extent of these infections, and how it is spreading
• Commissioning – and funding in full – a range of research into this disease, including into ways of reducing spore spread and increasing the resistance of existing trees.