Disorderly spring, a fly in the face of winged insects

Cold, unsettled and often chaotic weather has led to a difficult time for the nation’s wildlife in the first half of 2013 according to experts at the National Trust.

A slow cold start to the year saw many spring plants flowering for much longer than usual, but warmth-loving winged insect numbers have really struggled, which could lead to food shortages for birds and bats and have a knock on affect for plant pollination.

Matthew Oates, a naturalist at the National Trust, said: “This year winter was loath to let go. All of this has meant that spring got seriously behind and was the latest since 1996; with bluebells still in bloom in early June and many butterflies were very late to emerge.

 “Some aspects of spring failed altogether – with frogs and toads struggling to breed in ponds which remained frozen.

 “Summer is now running two to three weeks late but may yet come good.”

Britain had a ten day spell of severe cold in late January followed by a cold but dry February, which led into the second coldest March on record for five decades

March produced frosts most nights and snowy spells around the 12th and 22nd.  April began with a bitter, incisive wind, but was then mixed, including a ten day warm spell which ended on the 24th. The month then concluded with a cold frosty spell.

After a most promising start May failed to deliver.  Though both bank holiday weekends were sunny and fairly warm, in stark contrast to the rest of the month, which was cold, cloudy, and periodically wet and windy.

Frosts occurred in many areas right up to the month’s end, burning off bracken fronds and young leaves on ash saplings.

June began and ended well, but was at best indifferent in between, and was often very windy, and had many cool nights.

 Flowering plants, both in the garden and in the wild, are now rather behind the norm. Dogwood and Elder, in particular, are flowering unusually late, whilst in gardens many lilacs are still flowering in late June.

wildlife&weather-spring2013

Wildlife winners so far in 2013:

  • Some plants had amazingly long flowering seasons, notably snowdrops, which flowered from mid January into the second week of April, and daffodils, which persisted well into May.
  • Primroses began late but lasted late into the third week of May, dandelions peaked two to three weeks late, in early to mid May, but spectacularly, and bluebells came rather from nowhere to peak in most places during the third week of May, over three weeks late.  There was also a fantastic flowering of Birdseye Primrose at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales.
  • 2013 has been a superb year for rookeries. Rooks keep their own time and are not moved around by early or late springs. Trees leafed up very late so rookeries were visible for an extended period. Young rooks seemed to be everywhere in early June, suggesting a successful breeding season, perhaps linked to rich pickings amongst unusually high amounts of spring ploughing.
  • Record number of sandwich terns nesting at Blakeney on the north Norfolk coast.
  • Buttercups are in abundance this year with a wonderful flowering in early June, perhaps because they all came at once.
  • Craneflies (daddy-long-legs) have been unusually numerous, perhaps as beneficiaries of last year’s wet ground conditions.

 Wildlife losers so far in 2013: 

  • Winged insects are more influenced by the vagaries of the weather than other elements of our wildlife. Butterflies have been very scarce, which is hardly surprising as last year was the worst butterfly year on record. Butterflies are now emerging two to three weeks later than in recent years, though still a little earlier than in some late springs of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
  • Moths have perhaps been scarcer than the butterflies, unsurprisingly as the nights have been too cool, wet or windy for moth activity.
  • Other insects have appeared late, and in pulses which have quickly been blasted away by poor weather.
  • Mason and mining bees were knocked out early by poor May weather.  They are important pollinators.
  • Birds may have had a very difficult time due to food shortages and cold nights. Summer migrants, like warblers, are largely insectivorous and arrived on time to a countryside devoid of flying insects. Martins, swallows and swifts are struggled to find airborne insect food, which disappears when the weather’s particularly cold.
  • Hibernating mammals, notably bats and hedgehogs, had to stay inactive long into the spring due to the cold, but seem to have come through alright.  Dormouse, however, may have suffered in the challenging conditions.
  • Lack of typical foods are driving creatures to other sources- Oystercatcher egg numbers suffered badly due to increased predation from gulls this spring.
  • The bitter northeast wind at the turn of March led to the death of many seabirds along the east coast of Scotland and northern England. Some 3,500 puffins died in a horrific ‘puffin wreck’, seemingly of starvation, along with guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags.
  • 2012 may have been year of the slug, but multiple late spring frosts may have depleted their numbers in advance of summer 2013.

 Looking ahead to the second half of 2013:

  • There is likely to be plenty of holly berries at Christmas as the hollies flowered and were pollinated in good early June weather.
  • Later flowering apple varieties could be very successful this summer for the same reason.
  • Watch out for high numbers of Cabbage whites in late July and August, weather permitting.  There was an unusually high number of Large Whites during May and June, which could well lead to a bumper high summer brood.

Matthew Oates concludes: “Human health, tourism and recreation, farming and horticulture, beekeeping, cricket, childhood and especially our wildlife are all now crying out for a long hot summer.  We are well over due a good British summer.”

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