2015 was another challenging year for wildlife, with many new issues coming to the fore, say experts at the National Trust as part of its annual weather and wildlife review.
The conservation charity, which looks after almost 250,000 hectares of land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, conducts the review across its places every year to help paint a picture of how the year’s weather has affected the nation’s wildlife against a long-term backdrop of decline for 60% of species in the UK.
The year started well with the sunniest winter on record providing a stark contrast to the stormy weather which kicked off 2014.
Spring arrived late, however, and summer migrant birds were held up by northerly winds and hedges coming into leaf later than usual. The season came to life as another record was set with the sunniest April since recording began in 1929.
Despite the positive start, spring quickly deteriorated in May as the jet stream jumped south. The wet and windy month that followed led to a generally wet and remarkably windy summer, notably in the far north. There were spells of fine weather between mid-June to mid-July, and again in early August, but the main holiday period was very poor.
Worryingly, wasps had another poor year, particularly in the south west, which represents a wider decline in our insect populations, thought to be a result of confounding weather alongside the possible effects of pesticides used in farming.
September was a mostly excellent month, with October following suit. Autumn rains arrived only after the warmest November day on record (01 November). The unseasonable warmth led to the prolonged flowering of many summer plants and this year’s insects lingered longer into the autumn.
Matthew Oates, nature and wildlife specialist, said: “Every year our wildlife has to deal with our weather’s highs and lows, and this year was certainly no different. This summary illustrates how our wildlife has fared over the last year, but long-term trends show the enormous challenges we face to reverse the worrying rate of decline.
“This year we’ve seen unprecedented jellyfish invasions. This may be due to overfishing and warming seas, which has led to huge plankton booms and reduced the number of predators. We’ve also seen an incredible number of dolphins, porpoises and sharks, including the stranding of a fin whale on Northern Ireland’s Port Stewart Strand.”
From April through to October thousands of people turned up to take part in 24 BioBlitzes along the 775 miles of coastline looked after by the National Trust. The 24 hour long wildlife surveys logged almost 22,000 recordings of plant and animal species making it the National Trust’s largest ever survey of coastal wildlife. The results were shared with local wildlife record centres and the National Biodiversity Network to help understand what wildlife along our coasts is changing and how.
A number of rare discoveries were made including the red-shanked carder bee at Birling Gap in Sussex which has seen a great decline in recent years. The bee is now part of the team’s conservation management plan there.
The flooding and destruction caused by storm Desmond at the beginning of December, particularly in Cumbria and the North East, showed the intensity of extreme weather events that are likely to increase in frequency thanks to climate change. Experts at the National Trust say that not enough is yet know about the impact of storms like this on life in rivers and on land that has been flooded.
Matthew Oates added: “While things were less remarkable for our wildlife on land this year, we need to ask what’s happening to our wasps. Many might welcome their dwindling numbers, but the ecological world is a delicate one and with our two species of common wasps incredibly scarce in many districts for the second consecutive year, we have to ask what impact this is having.
“What’s clear is that our native wildlife has enough problems coping with the stresses of our ever changing climate without also having to cope with habitat loss as a result of our increasing demands on the environment.”
A good year for…
- Barn owl populations around the National Trust’s Malham Tarn and in Upper
Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales flourished as a result of improved conditions through a reduction in grazing pressure and the planting up of areas of young woodland, leading to good numbers of their favoured prey, the field vole.
- This summer there were huge swarms of barrel jellyfish, particularly around the south west of England and Wales. As sea temperatures rise with climate change and plankton blooms become bigger and last longer, there are likely to be more jellyfish occurring even further north.
- A lack of stormy weather or frosts in the early part of autumn ensured it was a fantastic year for autumn tints, boosted further by a superb apple crop.
- Little terns had their most productive year on Blakeney Point since 2011. A second
nesting site on the Point which is better protected from an ever increasing risk of flooding seen elsewhere on the Point, only attracted two pairs of nesting birds last year. To attract more, a decoy was established by National Trust rangers which attracted eleven pairs this year.
- Another record-breaking year for breeding guillemots on the Farne Islands.
- The long-tailed blue butterfly, an extremely rare migrant, returned to the south east, breeding again on the White Cliffs of Dover.
- BBC Springwatch fans on Facebook helped to contribute to this year’s wildlife winners and losers, noticing that there was a massive increase in the number of goldfinches seen in gardens this year.
A bad year for …
- Puffins, which this autumn were placed on the Red list of Birds of Conservation Concern, had a poor breeding season on the Farne Islands when their burrows were flooded.
- Frogs and toads in the south of England faced a difficult year as many pools dried up over the spring. BBC Springwatch fans noticed their absence with many finding that frogs in their garden failed to breed. At Formby in Merseyside, Natterjack toads had a particularly difficult time, however the May rains arrived just in time.
- Common wasps.
- On the Farne Islands there were 600 less breeding pairs of Arctic Terns this year due to poor food supplies and stormy weather. Arctic terns are on the Amber list of Birds of Conservation Concern.
- Also on the Amber list are Sandwich terns which had a bad year at Blakeney Point. The birds were already struggling due to a shortage of sand eels were affected further by stormy weather in late June. However, more nested successfully at Scolt Head Island as they laid their eggs earlier.
- It was a disappointing autumn to see fungi due to a dry autumn after a cool, wet summer.
- There is a continuing concern for our ladybirds with several BBC Springwatch Facebook fans not seeing any at all this year.