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.

South West gardens blooming despite the weather for Valentine’s flower count

  • Rare rhododendron in flower for second time in 30 years
  • Snowdrop voted top spring bloom

Surprisingly, the recent unprecedented wet weather seems to have had very little affect so far on National Trust gardens in the South West with the annual spring spectacular already under way.  

Volunteer Hayley Jones helps out at the National Trust's annual valentine's day flower count. Credit Steve Haywood

Volunteer Hayley Jones helps out at the National Trust’s annual valentine’s day flower count. Credit Steve Haywood

Gardeners and volunteers at 23 National Trust places across the South West took part in the annual Valentine’s Day flower count which first started in Devon and Cornwall in 2006. Continue reading

Ancient trees brace themselves against the weather

Brian Muelaner is the National Trust’s Ancient Tree Advisor (@NTancienttrees). Here he explains how the recent weather has affected our ancient trees.

We’ve heard all about the incredible storms which have battered the coast in the South West and Wales over recent months, causing devastation in their wake.  We have seen some of the most dramatic images showing the enormous combined power of wind and wave. And we’ve witnessed the effects of staggering amounts of rain causing flooding, the destruction of railways, landslips and the tragic loss of irreplaceable personal belongings and the heartache this has caused.

What’s less well recorded are the accumulative effects from the continued rain and wind on some of our most significant trees. National Trust properties have been recording the heaviest tree losses since the great storms of 1987 and 1990. Although the tree losses are nowhere near as bad, it is none the less very significant.

Properties are losing some of their most important parkland trees, which are several hundred years old, through a combination of high winds tearing trees apart and saturated soils reducing the trees’ ability to anchor themselves against the punishing winds.

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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.

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.”

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

Comment: Late Spring

Spring is a variable feast, depending on how readily winter is prepared to let go, or not. Winter is holding on grimly, though it will eventually lose out, for spring will break through and lead us joyously into summer. Late springs are not that unusual. During the late 1970s and early 80s we had a run of them. More recently, the spring of 1996 was incredibly late, culminating in a particularly cold May, and those of 2008 and 2010 were also distinctly slow. So we’ve been here before.

An early Easter seems to tempt the weather to produce its worst. In 2008, Easter occurred even earlier than it does this year – and it snowed, and after a snow-free winter. The good news, though, is that a poor spring doesn’t necessarily lead to a dismal summer – the bad springs of 1983 and 1996, as examples, gave way to lovely summers. We are overdue a good summer… .

A slow and late spring is no bad thing, for flowers, leaves, insects, nesting birds and breeding amphibians can all get caught out when an early spring suddenly disintegrates into a cold snap. Slow and steady is perhaps best overall, though some hibernating animals can run out of fuel, so to speak, if their emergence gets badly delayed.

The flower count at Hidcote didn't quite go to plan...

The flower count at Hidcote didn’t quite go according to plan…

  • 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. He has recently been featured in his own program on BBC Radio 4 “In pursuit of the ridiculous”.

 

BBC: Spring equinox today but winter lingers

Guardian: Nature lies dormant ahead of first day of Spring

The long winding road towards spring

The journey towards spring has begun writes naturalist Matthew Oates.

There is an eternal push-and-pull relationship between spring and winter. The battle is usually at its fiercest during February, but can last well into April. This time, spring was pushing forward steadily as December and early January were mild, but she was reigned in by a ten day cold snowy spell in late January, which produced superb tobogganing conditions. The snow melted spectacularly over the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend, which deprived us rather as many of the more unusual birds instantly dispersed from the gardens (Chaffinch counts in my own garden on the Glos / Wilts border collapsed from 30-50 during the snow down to seven for BGBW, and the Bramblings vanished).

The cold spell was welcome, as an early spring is a high risk strategy that usually ends in tears – or more aptly, in a cold snap. Spring mustn’t get over-excited and rush ahead of herself. Slow and steady is the surest way.

The first signs of spring are incredibly localised, with the likes of Bluebell spikes and Hawthorn leaves appearing at the foot of warm south-facing slopes weeks ahead. And spring features appear earlier in towns and cities, doubtless due to the warmth that issues from our buildings. There, young cock birds tune up far earlier than in the cooler countryside.

One of the main features of late winter or incipient spring – call it what you will, for the two are so closely entwined as to be one – is the land drying out, in preparation for true spring. That’s precisely what has been happening in the countryside these last few days.

To me, New Year’s Day is not January 1st, but when I first see Rooks building – and I watch out for them assiduously. This usually occurs around Valentine’s Day, but I am delighted to report that one of my daughters has just texted me to say that she has seen Rooks building this very morning outside Goring station in the Thames valley.

The poet-naturalist Edward Thomas (1878-1917) muses in The South Country (1909): ‘It is not yet spring. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and blessed than ever was spring.’ Our duty now, at this very time, is to help dream the spring. Later, at the end of In Pursuit of Spring (1914) he writes: ‘Winter may rise up through mould alive with violets and primroses and daffodils, but when cowslips and bluebells have grown over his grave he cannot rise again: he is dead and rotten, and from his ashes the blossoms are springing.’

Matthew Oates is a naturalist working for the National Trust. You can follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/NTMatthewOates

Guest Blog: Weather roundup 2012 courtesy of the Met Office

The New Year’s weather began on a particularly turbulent note, with a major wind storm causing significant disruption across southern Scotland with gusts at well over 80 mph. January overall was the mildest since 2008.

February began with a spell of dry and cold weather, including the lowest UK temperatures of the winter so far and some significant snowfall. The lowest temperature reported was -15.6 °C on 11 February, at Holbeach, Lincolnshire. The second half of the month then became very mild, with temperatures often into the high teens. The continued dry weather, following two dry winters previously, put many parts of the UK on drought status.

March was another mild month with some particularly settled and warm weather. A high of 23.6 °C was recorded at Aboyne, Aberdeenshire on 27th which set a new March record for Scotland. Overall March was the 3rd warmest across the UK in the series from 1910. With high pressure dominating the weather for much of the month, March was a drier than average month too – the 5th driest across the UK in fact, and was also the sunniest month in England since 1929.

April was a much more unsettled and cool month by comparison and was in fact the coldest April for the UK since 1989. It also ranks as the wettest April in the UK series since 1910.

An image of seats in the rain at National Trust Coughton Court, Warwickshire. Gavin Wray

Summer rain at Coughton Court

May began on a rather changeable note with cool, wet weather but then turned increasingly settled and very warm with temperatures above 27 °C at least somewhere in the UK on 6 successive days from 23rd to 28th. The highest temperatures were generally in Highland Scotland, and a new temperature record for of 29.3 °C was set on 25th at Achnagart, Highand.

The weather in June was dominated by low pressure, with numerous bands of rain tending to stall over or close to the UK, associated with a southerly shift in the jet-stream. These brought very large rainfall totals and some strong winds early in the month. There was an almost complete absence of warm, settled spells and overall, this was the wettest June across the UK in the series from 1910. Most of England, Wales, southern Scotland and Northern Ireland received at least twice the June average rainfall amount, and for the UK it was also generally cool and rather dull.

The first two thirds of July continued along an unsettled theme but by the time the Olympic Games arrived, high pressure built in across southern parts of the UK giving much more settled conditions for the majority of the events. In fact temperatures rose to 30 °C at St James’ Park, London on the 24th. Despite this, many parts of England, Wales and eastern Scotland had more than twice their average rainfall for July and there were numerous floods.

The first half of August saw distinctly average weather but in the third week, temperatures hit 32.4 °C at Cavendish, Suffolk. The weather in the last week turned much more unsettled with lots of rain across the north and west of the country. The night of the 31st was notably cold with a widespread frost across Scotland. In terms of extremes though, August was the best month of summer 2012, which was otherwise assessed as the wettest since 1912, cool and rather dull.

The first two weeks of September were generally dry and warm, with temperatures rising into the high 20s Celsius in South East England – well timed for the Paralympic Games. Scotland and Northern Ireland were much more unsettled and windy at times, but by the last two weeks of the month unsettled conditions spread to many areas, particularly during the 23rd – 26th when a vigorous area of low-pressure gave particularly high rainfall totals and some strong winds.

October had a very autumnal feel with successions of low pressure systems interspersed with quieter, drier and sunnier days. It was quite a cold month though with temperatures below average and some frosty, foggy nights.

The start of November continued the chilly, autumnal theme with cold nights and spells of rain from time to time. The third week, however, saw a string of depressions affect the UK with very little respite. From the 19th – 27th, many parts of England had over a month’s worth of rainfall and some devastating floods. The final week of the month saw a cold northerly airflow and generally dry conditions but the cold weather led to frost, ice, and fog and in some places, snow.

Sarah Holland, The Met Office