1976: a devastating summer for wildlife

This Sunday on Countryfile Matthew Oates, National Trust nature expert, will speak about the devastating effect on wildlife of the long hot summer of 1976.

This time forty years ago the long hot summer of 1976 was approaching its height.

The country sweltered under a Mediterranean-type climate.

As the country burned, we learned. The heathland fires that summer taught us that heath habitats must be actively managed or they burn up, 1976-style.

Headley HEath

Headley Heath (c) National Trust / David Zinzan

That summer the grass scarcely grew at all. Flowers were stunted and the colours in the landscape were radically different. Verdant greens were replaced by greys and, increasingly, browns.

Heath and moor fires became a national media obsession.  Over half of Surrey’s heaths went up in smoke. On the National Trust’s Headley Heath, fifty separate fires devastated the equivalent of 173 football pitches of heathland.   In Dorset major heath fires blazed at Middlebere on the Studland peninsula.

The impact on wildlife was acute. Things were worst for sedentary animals like the smooth snake and sand lizard, but also rare breeding birds like Dartford warbler, hobby and woodlark.  At Middlebere in Dorset the sand lizard population crashed from as many as a thousand individuals to a mere thirty.

Burnt habitats on sandy and stony soils quickly recovered. Wet heathland also mended speedily. But lasting damage was done to deep peat where the peat burned.

Many broad-leaved trees wilted or even died, notably beech and birch.

Some wetlands, rivers, ponds and lakes completely dried up totally.  Moisture-loving plants and animals suffered – ferns, lichens, mosses, many wetland flies and, more obviously, frogs and toads, and slugs and snails.

But the great drought did some good as well. A whole generation of scrub seedlings perished, which would otherwise have turned downland, heathland or neutral grasslands into scrubland.

And the long hot summer of 1976 taught us much about how, as a conservation charity, we should be looking after our countryside places – putting nature first.

Watch Countryfile at 18:30 on Sunday 26 June on BBC2.

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