Big Butterfly Count – the recovery of the Small Tortoiseshell 

As Butterfly Conservation releases its results from the Big Butterfly Count, National Trust’s Matthew Oates, looks at some of the highlights. 

It was great to learn from Butterfly Conservation’s speedy analysis of the 2014 Big Butterfly Count data that the Small Tortoiseshell is continuing to recover. It is the quintessential garden butterfly, one of the nation’s favourites – but we took it for granted until it inexplicably started to nose-dive during the early noughties.

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Isle of Wight bee-eaters rewrite the record books

Bee-eaters nesting on the Isle of Wight have raised eight chicks – the most successful breeding attempt by these birds, normally found in the Mediterranean, on record in the UK.

Three chicks have now fledged from one nest, on National Trust land, and another five chicks have fledged from a second nest.

Bee eater

Bee-eaters on the Isle of Wight. Credit Danny Vokins.

An adult bee-eater was first spotted at Wydcombe on 15 July by National Trust dragonfly survey volunteer Dave Dana. And chicks were first sighted a month later on the 15 August. There were originally thought to be nine chicks but one has not survived.

Dave Dana, a National Trust Volunteer on the Isle of Wight, said: “I’d just come from counting golden-ringed dragonflies at a stream and I thought ‘that bird looks a bit different!’

“Its flight path seemed almost triangular. I didn’t really appreciate the bird until I got home and looked at the photos. I’d always wanted to see a bee-eater in this country but I never thought it would turn out to be a major wildlife event.”

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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.