A review of 2014: the year of the biting fly

Extreme weather in 2014 created an unpredictable rollercoaster of a year for our beleaguered wildlife and saw a raft of migrant species visiting our shores, say experts at the National Trust in their annual wildlife and weather round-up.

As a result of the warm, often wet summer, this year’s wildlife winners include biting flies, slugs and snails. More positively, many resident birds, mammals and amphibians also had good breeding seasons, although the picture is patchy and localised.

Birling Gap, Credit National Trust

Birling Gap, Credit National Trust

The year, however, will be most remembered for the winter storms in January and February; indicating the challenges that the natural world could face with the growing extremes of weather some of which may be caused by climate change.

National Trust rangers looking after the 742 miles of coastline cared for by the charity across England, Wales and Northern Ireland witnessed several years’ worth of erosion, while inland many of the Trust’s gardens and parklands suffered their greatest tree losses in almost 30 years.

Little terns along the Norfolk coast at Blakeney had to nest in low areas as a result of severe tidal surges which changed the beach profile. High tides followed in mid-June and flooded the seabirds’ nests resulting in a very poor breeding season.

 

Elsewhere, many other seabirds, however, recovered from the winter storms to stage highly successful breeding seasons against a period of decline since 2000. This included the shag population on the Farne Islands, where rangers recorded a 37% increase on last year’s count thanks to a mild summer and good food availability.

Puffins taking in the passing scene on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland, Credit Joe Cornish

The winter, while wet, was also unseasonably mild. As the land dried out in March, spring insects begun to appear far earlier than usual and puffins returned to the Farne Islands two weeks early.

Matthew Oates, National Specialist on Nature and Wildlife at the National Trust, said: “The greatest challenge for wildlife this year, and perhaps a sign of things to come, was the extreme weather. This combined with the loss of habitat means that nature is in for a bumpy ride in the years ahead as shown by the rollercoaster that many species endured in 2014.

“The mild winter gave way to an early and rapid spring. But early springs almost always end in tears, as this one did.

“June, however, was superb and July more than good, but August – the key holiday month – let the summer down badly, only for a warm, dry September to follow. A most topsy-turvy year.”

The early sunny summer months were brought to a damp end by a cool, wet and windy August. The tail end of Hurricane Bertha helped to make it the eighth wettest August on record.

Tree Bumblebee queen Matthew Oates

Tree Bumblebee queen Matthew Oates

September arrived and made its way into the history books as the second driest. Tree bumblebees, whose spread was noticeable this year, were recorded for the first time in Northern Ireland, at Cushenden on the Antrim coast. Since first appearing in the UK in 2006, this attractive bumblebee has spread rapidly.

 

Although October was wet and mild, September’s drought led to an often disappointing year for fungi, damaged further by slugs which were out in force as a result of October’s rain.

The mild and wet autumn led to a second spring, with frogspawn discovered on the Lizard in Cornwall on 21 November and the first proper frost in the south only arriving on 23 November.

Matthew Oates added: “This was a remarkable year for much of our wildlife, with many extreme highs and lows. Some species fared exceptionally well, others very poorly, with many faring differently from region to region.

“After such a helter-skelter year we wonder what lies ahead and what the winter will bring. Last winter was too wet, too windy and even too mild. Perhaps we could do with a ‘proper winter’, leading to a slow but sure spring? Whatever happens in the months ahead, we and our wildlife will have to cope.

“This is our annual snapshot of how nature has fared over the past year. We remain worried about the long term trends which show enormous pressure on species and habitats.”

January

  • The wettest January on record for England and Wales
  • However, it was also unseasonably warm which led to great tits, song thrush, robins and wood pigeons all being very vocal
  • Hazel catkins had already appeared by New Year’s Day in some districts
  • Snowdrops out very early, particularly at Fyne Court in Somerset
  • Birds washed ashore at Strangford Lough

 February

  • The storms continue (Video link), with the last big one of the winter on St Valentine’s Day
  • The warmth brought about an early spring with birds nesting and frogs spawning
  • Red squirrels mate early at Formby in Liverpool
  • Early duck nests washed away
  • The Trust’s south west annual Valentine’s Day flower count revealed a late blooming season for flowers at Lanhydrock in Cornwall, as a result of saturated ground conditions.
  • At Penbryn on the Ceredigion coast in Wales, the storms washed away an entire sand dune system

 March

  • The land dries out and the first day of spring arrives on 7 March with butterflies and bumblebees emerging en masse from hibernation
  • Spectacular primrose and celandine flowerings in a short, sharp season
  • Green hairstreak butterflies out early on Rodborough Common in Gloucestershire
  • Puffins return to the Farne Islands in Northumberland two weeks early (Video link)
  • A good breeding season for frogs and toads, notably at Sheringham Park in Norfolk

 April

 May

 June

 July

  • Hot and sunny although thundery, with major thunderstorms on 18th
  • More biting flies, plus flying ants and thunder bugs
  • Blackberries ripe by the end of the month

 August

  • The end of summer and the coldest August for 20 years
  • Hurricane Bertha arrived helping to make it the 8th wettest August on record
  • Wet weather leads to abundance of mosquitoes, but the cool August and interchangeable weather keeps wasps at bay
  • August’s highlight was the discovery of bee-eaters breeding at Wydcombe on the Isle of Wight. Normally found nesting in the Mediterranean, the eight chicks which fledged made this the most successful breeding attempt by these birds ever recorded in the UK and attracted more than 3000 visitors.
  • Abundance of the common autumn cranefly Tipula paludosa, an important food item for bats and some birds

 September

 October

  • A wet and mild month
  • Patchy and generally poor fungi year due to drought, worsened by damage from slugs
  • Second spring and late flowering of plants, including cowslip at Nunnington Hall
  • Record number of little gulls seen over the Farnes – likely due to weather systems across the North Sea pushing them south

 November

  • The seas remained warm, so much so that 28 long-finned whales were seen off Norfolk coast on 10 November, which is the first recorded for Norfolk, and sunfish were spotted off Sheringham Park
  • Roses and other flowers linger on longer due to an absence of frosts in the south
  • Frogspawn was discovered on the Lizard Coast on 21November
  • Abundance of field voles, and other voles and mice

December

  • Seal pup counts reveal Blakeney Point as the largest rookery in England, with more than 2300 pups

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