Weather and wildlife – a review of the year so far

 

Matthew Oates, Nature and Wildlife expert for the National Trust, reflects on the weather so far this year and looks at how it has affected our wildlife.

“This winter was one of the stormiest on record and the wettest since 1766. Despite this, it was also the mildest winter in more than 100 years

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Stormy weather and a blooming spring: a review of the year so far

Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s National Specialist on Nature, looks back at the year’s weather so far and asks what’s in store for us this summer:

“This winter was one of the stormiest on record, with a succession of powerful storms hitting our shores from 23 December right through until 24 February. So much so, in fact, that in England and Wales it was the wettest winter since 1766.

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Trust tree losses biggest in two decades

New research has revealed that some of the country’s favourite woodland places have seen their biggest loss of trees in a generation as a result of the extreme winter weather.

A 600 year-old oak tree which has come down at Woolbeding in Sussex

A 600 year-old oak tree which has come down at Woolbeding in Sussecx

More than 50 National Trust sites have been surveyed with many gardeners, rangers and foresters saying that the losses of trees has been the greatest in more than two decades and in some cases the Great Storm of October 1987.

High winds and extreme weather throughout the winter have seen some places lose hundreds of trees, including many valued ancient trees.

The National Trust cares for 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of woodland across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It looks after many world famous trees including Newton’s Apple Tree at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire and the tree at Runnymede in Surrey where the Magna Carta was signed.

Many of the trees that have been lost have blown over rather than snapped off due to the saturated ground conditions. However the big picture varies, with some places seeing little damage, and unlike the storms of 1987 and 1990, nowhere has been devastated.

Matthew Oates, National Trust Specialist on Nature & Wildlife, said: “People love and need trees, and the loss of specimen trees in gardens and parks, and of ancient beeches and oaks in the woods and wider countryside hurts us all, and damages much wildlife. We value and venerate these old sentinels and need to become increasingly aware of the power of the weather.

“Increased storminess, and increased extreme weather events generally, are likely to stress trees further, especially veteran trees. We will have to think carefully about where we establish trees and what species we plant.”

The Killerton Estate in Devon has suffered some of the biggest losses, with more than 500 trees blown over by the storms, including 20 significant trees within the design landscape.

Many other specimen trees in gardens and parks have been blown over or badly damaged, particularly in South West England and in Wales. However many gardens outside the West have also suffered, such as Tatton Park, south of Manchester, Attingham Park near Shrewsbury, Nymans in Sussex and Scotney Castle in Kent.

A few historically or regionally important trees have been lost, such as a rare black walnut at Hatfield Forest, which was the largest in Essex.

Sometimes ‘wind blow’ in woods presents a good opportunity for natural recolonisation by pioneer species such as ash and sallows.

This 200 year old oak tree came down at Stourhead in Wiltshire on Valentine's Day

This 200 year old oak tree came down at Stourhead in Wiltshire on Valentine’s Day

Alan Power, Head Gardener at Stourhead in Wiltshire, said: “Over the past three or four weeks we’ve lost 20 trees in the garden, with up to 400 across the wider estate.

“We’ve lost one spectacular oak tree, which could well be between two hundred and two hundred and fifty years old and planted by the man who created the landscape garden at Stourhead.

“Storms like we’ve seen this winter are all part of the estate’s history. If people can come along and they do see the trees on the ground they’ll realise it’s not just a one off, it happens throughout the history of the estate and it is part of working so closely with nature.”

Matthew Oates added: “As people venture out this spring, they will still be able to see these fantastic places, but a few old friends may be missing or lying down providing interesting wildlife habitats.

“Our teams are working hard to keep access to our gardens and parkland open by clearing any fallen trees from footpaths.”

Examples of tree losses across National Trust places:

Trengwainton Garden in Cornwall – Around 30 trees have been lost, namely from the shelterbelt that surrounds the garden. To date, more than 1000 hours have been spent clearing up the storm damage, with more work still required.

Trelissick in Cornwall –Lost three old lime trees, several mature oak and two very large scots pine in the park
Stourhead in Wiltshire – Up to 400 trees lost across the wider estate, including a 200-year-old oak.

Mottisfont and New Forest in Hampshire – There has been a loss of up to 300 trees across three main areas of wind-blown woodland. In addition to this there have been a number of scattered trees across roads and rivers.

Selborne and Ludshott Commons in Hampshire – Lost around 300 trees, which will require three months clean-up work.

Ashridge in Hertfordshire – Full details not yet known, but a number of ancient and veteran trees have been lost, including a large ash and five pollards in Frisden beeches and in excess of 100 birch trees.

Croft Castle and Parkland in Herefordshire – Lost around 40 trees including a chestnut from the chestnut avenue.

Osterley Park in Middlesex – Lost three 250-300 year old English oaks, two 150 year old cedar of Lebanon and a 100 year old sycamore

Hatfield Forest in Essex – Lost 18th century black walnut and 250 year old oak along with a lot of superficial damage to trees and some structural damage to pollards

Penbryn in Ceredigion – Lost a 5.2m girth ash, which is an exceptionally old ash tree

Castle Ward in County Down – Up to 70 trees have come down over the last few months as a result of the strong winds, including 8 significant trees.

Never underestimate a butterfly

Matthew Oates is the National Trust’s Nature and Wildlife Expert. He reflects on the results of the latest Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey.

Great to have it scientifically confirmed that, as suggested in the Trust’s review of 2013’s weather and wildlife, our farmland and garden butterflies fared well last year.  The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, run by Butterfly Conservation in association with BTO and CEH, shows that most of our so-called ‘common’ butterflies bounced back spectacularly, after the annus horribilis of 2012.

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The wings of change: 50 years of butterflying

An ever-changing climate, urban sprawl, forestry and modern farming techniques have all affected the butterfly world in the last fifty years, according to National Trust naturalist Matthew Oates.

Celebrating his 50th season of butterflying, Matthew Oates has reviewed the winners and losers of the butterfly world since the 1960s while taking a look at their future in the decades ahead.

Matthew Oates, who received his first butterfly net for his birthday on 7 August 1964 and is now the UK’s leading expert on the iconic Purple Emperor, said: “Nearly all butterfly species have seen dramatic changes over the last 50 years and for some it seems their ecology has changed almost entirely.

“Sadly, there have been more losers than winners during my career, with Dutch Elm disease, woodland clearance, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and a changing climate all playing their part.

“It’s been a massive rollercoaster ride for me. Some butterflies have done remarkably well and in some districts new species have appeared. At the National Trust’s Arnside Knott, a top butterfly site in south Cumbria, five new species have colonised during the last two decades.

“There have been many great personal highs too, notably the long hot summer of 1976 when butterflies boomed and the wonderful Painted Lady invasions of 1996 and 2009.”

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At this career milestone, Matthew Oates, who continues his butterfly research with support from the National Trust, predicts more unforeseen and significant change to come for butterflies in the UK.

The last 50 years
Winners:

  • The Large Blue was reintroduced in the UK from Sweden after being declared extinct here in 1979. The National Trust’s Collard Hill played a key role in this success story, which was achieved by the dedicated work of a couple of top scientists.
  • Adonis Blue and Silver-spotted Skipper declined severely when closely-cropped chalk grassland disappeared following the loss of rabbits to Myxomatosis. However, they are now recovering well due to conservation work and the recovery of rabbit populations: the Adonis Blue returned suddenly to the Cotswolds in 2006 after 40 years of extinction. Within 3 years there were 25 colonies, mainly on National Trust hillsides around Stroud.
  • The Essex Skipper saw a sudden expansion in central southern England during the early 1980s in a run of good summers.
  • The Brown Argus, Gatekeeper, Marbled White and more recently Silver-washed Fritillary have also increased and are expanding their range across the UK, and there are signs that the Purple Emperor is too.
  • The Comma has also made a comeback in the UK, with a stronghold now in Northern Ireland, particularly at the National Trust’s RowallaneGarden.
  • Butterflies are now very well monitored and promoted by the dedicated charity, Butterfly Conservation.

    The Adonis Blue has made a comeback

    The Adonis Blue has made a comeback

Losers:

  • The White-letter Hairstreak, which breeds on elms and was formerly common in elm landscapes, collapsed as a result of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s. It has since staged a low key comeback in many areas but remains a shadow of its former self.
  • The Wall Brown used to be common along road verges, woodland rides and rough grassland, but started to disappear, mysteriously, in the mid 1980s and is now rarely seen away from the coastal fringes of England and Wales.
  • The Small Heath, one of the UK’s commonest butterflies, has virtually disappeared from woodland, though it still occurs in open grassland.
  • The Duke of Burgundy and High Brown Fritillary are also struggling, with few of the colonies Matthew found while surveying them in the 1980s and early 1990s remaining.
  • The ‘Spring Fritillaries’ (Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy) were once found in woodland clearings all across central southern England but are now very rare there. 
  • Surviving butterfly habitats are now often isolated fragments which makes natural spread very difficult.
  • Above all, 50 years of butterflying has seen massive highs and lows, often associated with weather.  Butterfly populations are hugely affected by weather, and overall climate change will affect them radically long term.

The next 50 years

 

  • The Large Tortoiseshell, extinct for many years, could recolonise southern England from mainland Europe. There are early signs this may be happening already, with several sightings on National Trust land on the Isle of Wight this spring.
  • Milder winters, associated with the less adverse side of climate change, might allow the continental Swallowtail, European Map and the Queen of Spain Fritillary to colonise from across the Channel.
  • Urban spread, farming and to some extent forestry remain the big issues: yet we could have whole landscapes teeming with butterflies if society supports the work of conservationists.

Matthew Oates added: “In the next 50 years, climate change is likely to affect butterflies massively. There will be even more winners and losers, with new species likely to colonise from abroad and established UK species forced to adapt to survive.

“If the work of dedicated and passionate conservationists continues and butterflies keep growing in importance within British culture, the challenges of the next 50 years can be overcome.

“A big social revolution is taking place: old-fashioned butterfly collecting has died out and been replaced by harmless photography and more people are growing butterfly-friendly plants in their gardens. Butterflies need friends and are gaining many new converts.”

The three week recent heatwave across much of the UK is likely to boost the butterfly population in the short term, with Oates anticipating a butterfly boom for his anniversary year. This comes on the back of some very challenging times for butterflies due to recent bad summers.

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.”

National Trust’s top twenty butterfly sites

One of the National Trust’s wildlife experts Matthew Oates is celebrating his 50th season of butterflying in 2013.  He has handpicked his top twenty National Trust sites for spotting these symbols of summer.

Matthew Oates and 50 years of Butterfly watching

Matthew Oates and 50 years of Butterfly watching

Commenting on the reason that butterflies have such a widespread appeal Matthew commented: “Butterflies are one of our most enduring symbols of summer, and they are important indicators of the health of our environment and of the ways in which climate change is impacting it.   I’ve chosen twenty of the best National Trust sites where the grace and beauty of butterflies during their brief but colourful lives can be enjoyed by everyone.

Matthew’s top twenty National Trust butterfly sites are:

  • Afton, Compton and Brook Downs on the Isle of Wight – Blue is the hue, as the sky-blue and electric-azure of the Chalkhill and Adonis Blues set the Downs aglow for a few fleeting weeks in August. Clouded Yellows are usually frequent in late summer.  There is also an Adonis Blue brood in June and lots of Small Blue too.
  • Arnside Knott on the Cumbria/Lancashire border – One of only two places in England for the Scotch Argus, which is dusky black with red border spots and flies during the end of July and beginning of August.  Also a top site for the rare and declining High Brown Fritillary, big, bold and fast flying in July.   In June you can see the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Northern Brown Argus.
  • Ashclyst Forest in Devon – Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary fly in the open spaces in June.  In July and August, Ashclyst turns in to a butterfly forest teeming with white Admirals, Silver-Washed Fritillaries and Purple Hairstreaks.
  • Ballard Down at Swanage – The chalk ridge behind Swanage is one of the finest places for an array of butterflies, including the Lulworth Skipper which flies in July and August only on the Purbeck hills.  Chalkhill Blue, Adonis Blue and Dark-green Fritillary also abound, and you can also see migrant butterflies like the Clouded Yellow here.
  • Barrington Court Garden in South Somerset – Seriously good for butterflies in late summer.  The organic walled kitchen garden is, perhaps unfortunately, great for Cabbage Whites!  Buddleias, Michaelmas Daisies and Hemp Agrimony attract myriad Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock for nectar.  In autumn, numerous Red Admiral, Comma, Speckled Wood and Small Copper get intoxicated on fallen fruit in the orchards.  We have even recorded the excessively rare Long-tailed Blue here.
  • Bookham Common in Surrey – In mid-July Bookham plays host to the regal Purple Emperor, the UK’s greatest butterfly. It takes a little guile to track them down but it’s worth it.  The wood is also great for White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary.  The rare ‘Black Admiral’ – colour form of the White Admiral – occurs.
  • Calstone Combes and Cherhill Downs on the North Wiltshire chalk – Escape to one of the Trust’s secret butterflying hot spots, in search of Marsh Fritillary and Green Hairstreak in early June, Dark-green Fritillary and Chalkhill Blue in July and abundant Adonis Blue in late summer.
  • Cissbury Ring on the South Downs in West Sussex – Look out for four showstoppers on Cissbury Ring’s downland in July and August: the Chalkhill Blue, Adonis Blue, Dark Green Fritillary and the Marbled White.
  • Coleton Fishacre Garden in Devon – The definitive wildlife garden, in a sheltered combe on the Devon coast near Dartmouth.  In spring, Orange Tip, Green-veined White, Peacock and Holly Blue abound.  This garden is seriously good for butterflies in August and September: migrant Clouded Yellow, Red Admiral and Painted Lady are frequent, Common Blue and Marbled White breed in the grassland, Wall Brown patrols the banks, and the common butterflies are everywhere.  Essential visiting.  Rare vagrant butterflies such as the Monarch can appear here.
  • Collard Hill in mid Somerset – The only place in Britain where people are freely able to see the rare, reintroduced Large Blue butterfly – now is the best time to go.  Marbled White and Brown Argus also occur, and in late summer the elusive Brown Hairstreak can be tracked down here.
  • Compton Chine on the Isle of Wight coast – Usually the best place for the rare Glanville Fritillary, the Isle of Wight’s special butterfly, in June.  Also Wall Brown and Common Blue.  And a lovely bathing beach too.
  • Denbies Hillside on the North Downs in Surrey – This is the place to see the dazzling Adonis and Chalkhill Blues in July and August, so dense in numbers you have to watch each step.  Grizzled and Dingy Skippers fly in early summer, and there are Silver-spotted Skippers in August.
  • Heddon Valley in Devon – It’s the Fritillaries that shine in this wooded valley in July and August: with numerous High Brown, the Dark Green and the Silver-Washed fritillaries, all mixed up together.
  • Horsey in the Norfolk Broads – In June you may catch a glimpse of the rare giant Swallowtail over the reed beds along the edge of the mere, from the footpaths.  Orange Tip, Green-veined White and Wall Brown abound.  The nearby dunes are terrific for Grayling, Dark-green Fritillary, Small Copper and Common Blue in July and August.
  • Ibsley Common in the New Forest – The Forest was the home of Victorian butterfly collecting.  These heaths on the Forest’s western fringes are superb for the tiny Silver-studded Blue in July and Grayling and Small Copper during August.
  • The Langdale Pikes in Cumbria – The ultimate butterfly challenge – finding the elusive Mountain Ringlet high on the fells in late June or early July.  The humble Small Heath is the only other butterfly you will see up here, though the day-flying Wood Tiger moth counts as an honorary butterfly.  Those of weaker disposition should try the slopes above the Honister Pass youth hostel.
  • Murlough Nature Reserve in County Down – In the golden sand dunes of this beautiful stretch of the Northern Ireland coast you’ll come across Marsh Fritillary and Wood White in June, and the Dark Green Fritillary from July to mid-August and the feisty Small Copper throughout July, August and September.
  • Rodborough Common in Gloucestershire – It’s the iridescent azure beauty of the Adonis Blue to watch out for at Rodborough in August, back on in the Cotswolds after 40 years’ absence. Dark Green Fritillaries, Brown Argus, Small Blues and Chalkhill Blues can also be spotted on the common.
  • Watlington Hill in the south Chilterns – For years one of the best places for Silver-spotted Skipper, speeding low over the short grass in August.  Also, Chalkhill Blue, Brown Argus and Marbled White.  And great for watching Red Kites soaring.
  • Welshmoor Common on the Gower Peninsula in south Wales – A great place for Marsh Fritillary and the rare day-flying Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk moth in June.

For a great selection of butterfly walks on National Trust land go to http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk or type in ‘butterfly walks’ into the search engine.  You can follow Matthew on twitter at http://twitter.com/NTMatthewOates

50 years on…

Fifty years ago there was an ancient preparatory skool (sorry, school) master called Jonah, who had presumably once been called Mr Jones. He taught Dry Maths and Maths-without-any-vestige-of-Humour to ten and 11 year olds, and had done so for decades. He had probably died several times during his career, only to carry on as a ghost without anyone noticing. Something exciting once happened in one of his lessons: he caught fire, not through spontaneous combustion, but on account of his habit of going out half way through a lesson to puff a cigarette, which he then stubbed out and placed in his capacious trouser turn-ups. Doubtless this habit resulted from him having been traumatised in the war, probably the Crimea or Boer war, or by centuries of misbehaviour by Molesworth, Peason & Co. Eventually Jonah was retired into a rhomboid or a parallelogram, or wherever ancient maths masters go when their overtime is up, and was considered no more.

On Tuesday afternoons in the summer he did something arguably less futile. It was hobbies day, and he ran a butterfly & moth collecting group in the school (sorry, skool) grounds. The butterflies were rather modest but were wondrously outclassed by the moths, for the ablution blocks are the ends of the dormitories were superb walk-in moth traps. Curtains were not allowed as the skool (sorry, err, skool) was proud of its Spartan values. The windows were wedged open and the lights left on all night. Every dawn there was a scramble for the night’s catch. Four species of Hawkmoth were common, and much prized by the boys, along with several types of moth which I haven’t seen since, with magical names like Peach Blossom and The Lappet.

Matthew Oates and 50 years of Butterfly watching

Matthew Oates and 50 years of Butterflying

I was not in Jonah’s B&M hobby group, as it was called. I was in Birds instead, having developed a keen interest in birds and bird nesting from the age of four. Yet somehow Jonah fired me up, such that this summer I am celebrating 50 Years of Butterflying. Most of those 50 years have been intense if not downright extreme. Various outward-facing celebrations are being staged. A book is slowly writing itself on the topic, slowly being the operative word as the celebrations keep getting in the way of the writing.

I owe Jonah Everything, even though he probably never knew my name let alone my interest, and I was (and remain) hopeless at maths. What’s remarkable about this tale is that it illustrates the way in which someone can inadvertently be the catalyst for another’s passion, or even for their calling or ministry. Perhaps, as we were forever being told at school, the Holy Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways…

  • Matthew Oates

Weekly Witter: Where are Britain’s Bees?

A Buzzless Spring…

Hindsight is useless. Foresight is what’s needed, but it is far easier to prove something retrospectively.  Conservation and technological science need to be forward looking, and to prime future actions.  Furthermore, there’s a jumping off point where science has to prime belief.  That jumping off point is often hard to determine: sometimes we have to jump before we have full scientific certainty, which is where belief becomes important.

“I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening.”

Much has been said and written about neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) and the plight of bees, hived and wild.  I’d love to say that I fully understand it all, but I don’t; some of the science is beyond me, and some of it seems woolly. Good science is often partial, and there is much inadequate science around (often acting as a stepping stone towards good science).  Yet as an entomologist who has been interested in our native bees for over thirty years and as someone who has been involved in bee keeping on and off since childhood, I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening.  If there was a single cause we would in theory have got to the bottom of it by now, so I suspect a cocktail, a nasty cocktail.

My wife and I gave up bee keeping circa 2000 when we finally had to accept that we couldn’t keep them in the arable landscape in which we live.  It was unfair on the bees; they kept dying – and not just because of poor weather or Varroa mites, or even inadequate husbandry.  Moreover, we became increasingly aware that bees kept by friends in more suburban environments were faring considerably better.  Much of what our own bees gathered was Oil Seed Rape (OSR), which in my opinion makes revolting honey (and not simply because it sets rock hard).  Since then our local farms have increased their OSR acreage considerably.

“What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried.”

In 2012 some 490,000ha of OSR (76 per cent of the UK crop) were treated with ‘neonics’, along with some 600,000ha (30 per cent) of wheat (Advisory Committee on Pesticides Data, 2012).  A formal review by the European Foods Standards Agency reported in January that ‘neonics’ pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored evidential data upon which regulatory agencies have relied may be flawed.  Their review concluded that an acute risk to honey bees is posed by dust drift from the seed treatments used in maize, OSR and cereals, and that a similar high risk is posed by residues in nectar and/or pollen.  In response the European Commission is implementing a temporary ban on some neonicotinoids. This is effectively an evocation of the Precautionary Principle of the Rio Declaration, which states: ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

honey_bee North Eastern Photography

Will honey bees soon be a thing of the past?

Whether this will actually help bees remains to be seen.  Crops sown this autumn will not be affected by the moratorium, and two years is a pathetically small window of opportunity – especially as ‘neonics’ can persist in some soils for up to four years.  Furthermore, it is unwise to assume that the alternatives to ‘neonics’ are less damaging, so we urgently need to see guidance provided to farmers and gardeners on practices to use instead.  What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried.  Meanwhile in Wales there is perhaps some hope in the production of a Pollinator Action Plan (open for consultation until June 4th) which could be usefully extended and developed on a UK-wide basis as our bees don’t respect borders.

Why we are growing all this Oil Seed Rape in the first place is a question only naïve people like me ask…

  • Matthew Oates has worked for the National Trust for over 20 years.  Although passionate about butterflies he is very much an all-round naturalist and is effectively the Trust’s resident naturalist. He works closely with the Trust’s network of ecologists and naturalist rangers throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular weekly mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about the news and what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Spring catches up

At last we had a decent May Day Bank Holiday, you all say.  Actually, that of 2011 was sunny, though spoilt by a penetrating north-east wind, and we have to go back to 2005 for the last genuinely good one.  Hopefully the nation made the most of Monday’s most welcome sunshine.

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Nature certainly did.  It went into rapid catch-up mode.  Until this last week spring had been running late, the latest it’s been since 1996, though 2006 also saw a late spring.  But spring can move fast when released, and in the space of a mere week the countryside has been transformed.  Blink, or spend a week on an intensive indoor training course, and you miss it.

Bluebells have come from nowhere, or at least from a state of serious retard, and are now at or approaching their peak in many places. But why do they matter?  The answer is simply because they flower en masse when spring it at its absolute zenith.  Our scented bluebell drifts therefore form the pinnacle of spring – add a distant cuckoo call or the vibrancy of the nightingale and you’ve reached what TS Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world’ (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton).  Also, and more obviously, we have no other native plant that forms such stunning purple haze carpets (though devil’s bit scabious can perform a poor man’s version in September).  And our native bluebells are strongly scented.  We can get mildly intoxicated on the sight and scent of a bluebell carpet, especially on warm still spring afternoons – like Monday’s bank holiday.  To put it bluntly, bluebells are a legal and natural high.  They are especially good this year as some of the early spring flowers, with which they often grow, are still in flower – notably the pinky-white wood anemone or windflower, which are normally finished before the bluebells start.

nt-infographic-bluebells 2The trees are also, quite suddenly, breaking into leaf – and this seriously transforms the landscape.  The oaks are leafing late this year, so late in fact that they are coming out at the same time as the ash trees.  This may or may not be worrying, depending on how aware of, or convinced you are about, the rural saying concerning the leafing of ash and oak.  2013 could, of course, be the year in which Ash Dieback starts to do to our landscapes what Dutch Elm Disease did back in the early to mid 1970s.  We shall see, but in good spring weather there is always optimism – for spring is essentially about the fulfilment of promise, the promise of summer.  Perhaps we truly belong in summer?  Certainly, we are overdue a good summer.

Some migrant birds have arrived late, held up by northerly winds.  Two of the British Trust for Ornithology radio-tagged cuckoos arrived on our shores, found that the weather wasn’t to their liking – and promptly flew back south across the Channel.  Hopefully the warm spell has lured them back again.  It certainly brought a major flurry of arrivals – a major fall of common whitethroats over the bank holiday weekend, and more recently garden warblers.

In effect, spring is happening, all at once and all in a hurry right now.  It is impossible not to be moved by it.