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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The Signs of Spring

February can be the last month of winter, or the first of spring.  Last year it was the former, this year it could well be the latter.

By February we are desperate for signs of spring, as January is the slowest and least loved month.  Luckily, February is full of the little beacons of hope that tell us spring is on its way.  But many of these signs are subtle, and easily missed.

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Snowdrops in bloom thanks to mild winter

Snowdrops at Anglesey Abbey. Credit Howard Cooper

Snowdrops at Anglesey Abbey. Credit Howard Cooper

The gardens at the National Trust’s Anglesey Abbey are set to be transformed into a ‘sea of white’ as thousands of delicate snowdrops come into bloom early due to the unseasonably warm winter weather.

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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.

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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.”

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.

Weekly Witter: Battle of Britain’s bluebells

The Natural History Museum online Bluebell Survey

Are British bluebells under threat?

Are British bluebells under threat?

Since 2006 scientists at the NHM have been asking the public to look more closely at one of Britain’s best loved plants and report their data online. Initially driven by the desire to understand whether this iconic species was indeed threatened by an invasive alien, the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), our work soon became a quest to understand just what the plant we thought of as the Spanish Bluebell was and where it had come from, before we could begin to understand what we were seeing in the British countryside. Molecular work demonstrated that the Spanish and English Bluebells were very similar, indeed there was as much genetic variation between the populations of Spanish bluebell isolated on the different mountain ranges across Iberia as there was between it and our native plant. Study of the narrow zone where they meet in northern central Spain revealed a confusing mix, just like we can find in urban areas in Britain. Only geographical isolation has kept them apart and distinct as there is no apparent barrier to breeding between them. As a consequence our horticultural endeavours have in less than 250 years done much to undo the last 10,000 plus years of isolation and evolution!

“So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements?”

It became clear that the plant which had become associated in British botanist’s minds as typical Spanish Bluebell was actually a triploid, the like of which our criss-crossing of Iberia had failed to find. It is likely that if this didn’t arise early in cultivation it was of a selected form, picked out for its robustness and vigour (and not for its charm!) not subsequently found in the wild. It was also obvious that over time plants from different parts of Iberia had found their way to British gardens and because of the variability in the species we could determine that our problem plants might better be called Portugese rather than Spanish Bluebells!

“Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes…”

So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements? To an extent yes – with no barrier between them interbreeding will occur wherever the taxa meet, and our gardens, wherever they be across the country, the British public had shown us were full of hybrid plants. It was also clear that the major ancient woodland areas supporting the world’s largest stands of Hyacinthoides non-scripta were, as yet, largely unsullied and untainted by the alien. In areas around our major towns and cities, where ancient woodland habitats are small and fragmented and in close proximity to gardens and fly-tippers, populations were mixed. The message thus then became one of educating the public not to dispose of unwanted garden plants irresponsibly. Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes although encouragingly it seems that most pollinator movements may be going the other way, from our native plants to the invaders.

Having better established the distribution of alien plants (or their genes) within the British Isles we then decided that our survey may provide us with an excellent opportunity to build a more robust data set looking at the phenology of flowering in this species, which may help provide evidence on the existence and effects of climate change. To do this meaningfully requires very many years’ worth of data (not least to counter natural yearly fluctuations such as we see now) and as many members of the public contributing as possible, hopefully with the same plants recorded year after year. Responses to the survey peaked late in the flowering period last year following my appearance on the BBC’s One Show and we hope that all those people who contributed then will do so again this year. Last year our first records were made early in the first week of March, some five weeks or more ahead of our first this year and most plants I see even in the cities heat are still more than a fortnight from flowering.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

By carefully identifying plants using our online guidance, with the fallback of being able to send images to me here at the museum enquiries team (ias2@nhm.ac.uk) to help with this, it will be possible to document whether hybrid and Spanish plants do flower earlier so that we can discount this as one cause of change in flowering time and behaviour.

  • Fred Rumsey- Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, NHM
  • Experts at the National Trust believe that due to the late spring, British bluebells are still weeks away from flowering. Read more here.

Weekly Witter: Plot to plate- Heelis’ glorious garden allotments.

This week sees the launch of My Cool Allotment- an inspirational gardening book by Lia Leendertz, that mentions the tranquil allotments set within the office courtyards at Heelis- headquarters of the National Trust. Gardener Phil Osman takes us through what the Heelis allotments are all about:

The vegetable gardens were initially installed at Heelis in spring 2009, at first there were 6 raised beds which since has increased in number to 10. Plants and seeds are supplied by volunteers from the Heelis gardening club which meets once a month to drink tea, chat about gardening and on occasion actually review what we do!

The produce grown, which includes salad leaves, herbs, rhubarb, and last year tomatoes is picked and delivered to the kitchens to be used by the catering team. Phill Osman and Anne Whiteside meet early each year to decide what to grow in the coming season, tea is drunk, biscuits eaten and plans drawn, and then it is off to the green house to sow seed.

The Heelis allotments- tranquil green space within a busy headquarters

The Heelis allotments- tranquil green space within a busy headquarters

May

The rain is relentless, such a disappointment after the promising early spring weather, salad crops are in, the shallots and onions will be ready to come out soon and runner beans planted. Just need some sun now!

June

Well at least the hosepipe ban isn’t having a great effect on us! We keep planting and it keeps raining, everything is so slow to come on, the only things that seem to enjoy the weather are the snails and slugs! Tomatoes are in, a first this year, but I do wonder how they will do.

July

A brief respite from the rain, just as well as we have Lia Leendertz visiting to ask some questions about the veg garden for a book she is writing. So all hands to the pumps to make sure it is looking its best, Have to say that considering the awful weather so far it does all look very promising.

August

Summer it seems has passed us by this year; at least we haven’t had to water regularly. The tomatoes have done far better than I expected but are now inevitably showing signs of blight so they’ll have to come out. The battle with slimy predators is relentless; I really don’t know where they all come from.

September

Salad crops are still going, which is a tribute to the never ending efforts of Anne et al even with the appalling weather this season they have managed to keep a steady supply of produce going into the kitchen. Donna is our first line of defence against slugs and snails and without her regular forays I think they would have had more of what we grow than the catering team!

October

Harvest the last of the seasonal salad for the kitchen and start to tidy up for winter, although like many others we don’t seem to have had a summer.

November

Onions and garlic planted have topped up some of the beds with compost. Sweeping up leaves which seem to go on forever! Should have a good supply of leaf mould compost for next year. All spruced up and tidy for the AGM, We are doing a display about the gardens in the atrium this year.

December

Dodging showers, final weeding, turning over, adding more compost and netting the kale, cabbages and chard in an attempt to keep the pigeons off.

Last gardening club meeting of the year, tea and cake and all hoping for a better season next year.

January

Meet Anne and Donna to chat about what we are going to grow this year, the tomatoes were a surprising success last year so we’ll repeat those again. Several of the beds need top soil added, one for a little later on when it’s a bit warmer! A request for some Chicken manure from my two hens Thelma & Louise to mulch the Rhubarb crowns.

February

It is so cold!!!!! Snow, rain, gale force winds, the new shoots on the Rhubarb crowns have taken a real battering even though they have been well mulched, the onions and garlic we planted last autumn don’t seem to be doing anything, We have started sowing early lettuce but it will be too cold to put them in the green house to bring them on at this rate.

March

It’s still cold!!!!!! Anne’s seedlings have become to leggy to use so they have been scrapped and fresh batches sewn, we have been able to let the catering team have some kale and purple sprouting broccoli, the rhubarb is attempting a comeback and the onions and garlic are just showing some signs of life.

April

It seems to be getting slightly warmer, at long last! It was almost pleasant barrowing in two tons of topsoil last week! Fresh seedlings have actually made it to the green house, have digitalis, borage and field poppies ready to plant and sow under the fruit trees. Hopefully the cold will have an adverse effect on our resident snail population this year; otherwise its back to our tried and tested control measures, Donna picking them off by hand!

Coldest March for 50 years means bluebells are still weeks away from flowering

Spring may still be someway off, according to wildlife experts from the National Trust, with bluebell flowering predicted to be 3-4 weeks away and peak flowering possibly delayed until mid May or later.

Some Bluebell ‘stands’ or carpets are decades or even centuries old and their appearance is often seen as signalling the start of the British bloom leading to summer.

However following the coldest March since 1962 growth of the flower stalks has been slower than usual.

 Matthew Oates, a Naturalist for the National Trust, commented:

“The bluebell starts growing in January with its sole purpose to flower before the other woodland plants. However, timing of flowering depends on elevation, latitude, aspect, soils, geology and local climate conditions.

“The true beauty of our bluebells – the colour, the scent, the view – makes them an essential and special element to our springtime experience.”

“Make no mistake, spring is going to happen and it maybe all the better for the wait. What’s interesting is that there is a really good link between late springs and very good summers, and we are due – overdue – a very good summer.”

Normally bluebells peak in a wave effect across the country, starting in the south west fanning out across the UK. But cold and challenging springs can make them become more patchy and dependent on their location.

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These plants, protected by law in the UK, depend on warm ground temperatures to help them grow and are normally, but not exclusively, found in old woodland, thick old hedges, bracken-covered hillsides and sea cliffs.

A quarter of the 42,000 ha of woodland looked after by the National Trust is ancient or semi-natural; the ideal habitats for bluebells to flourish.

Half of the world’s population of bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta can be found in the UK. British bluebells are currently at risk of disappearing as a result of being out-competed by other plants such as wild garlic or three-cornered leek, and hybridising with the scentless and paler non-native Spanish bluebell which were often planted in gardens.

Matthew Oates continued:

“We don’t want our bluebells turning scentless and a wishy-washy blue.”

“The problem with hybridisation is that so many plants are introduced into gardens and then either escape or behave like thugs.”

“Surplus plants, pruning’s and weeding’s are often dumped in or near woodland, where the process of hybridisation tends to start pretty rapidly.”

The National Trust is collecting the public’s special places through an app where people can upload photos of bluebells, discover other people’s special places and share why they love them at www.facebook.com/nationaltrust and #specialplaces.

The National Trust wants everyone to enjoy the nation’s beautiful bluebell woods; so on the weekend of 20-21 April, families across the UK will have the opportunity to explore some of Britain’s best bluebell woods through the National Trust’s free weekend.nt-infographic-bluebells V2