Author Mike Russell
I’m sitting here writing this article, mopping the perspiration from my brow as the sun streams through the office window. It’s hard to think that just a week ago we were looking out on yet another gloomy, wet day and a sinking feeling that this was it for 2012; no sun, no summer. What a difference a week can make.
Repercussions for much of our wildlife have been much publicised in the media and indeed, for a majority of species this summer has been an extremely difficult breeding season. ‘Apocalyptic‘, ‘Catastrophic‘,’ Disastrous‘ are all phrases that have reached national headlines in relation to most, birds, butterflies and dragonflies this year. Only this morning there was an item on the Radio 4 ‘Today‘ programme about how swifts have suffered because of the lack of aerial insects and many have already left on their return journey all having an unsuccessful breeding year.
All this doomsday talk for species has me a bit concerned. I cannot deny in any way that breeding has been pretty non-existent for much of our wildlife this year and, as was pointed out in the item on swifts, where there is a significant decline in their population over a period of time, then a year like this can have a real impact on their potential for recovery over the long-term. Having said that, a bumper year next summer could bring numbers up to current levels.
Flooding in June and July saw the wiping out of most of our ground-nesting breeding waders, especially birds like redshank, snipe and lapwing, where virtually no young chicks will reach adulthood this year. Down at the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Rye Harbour, which is a site of national importance for some breeding species, there were no little tern chicks, a very rare species in the UK and a just a handful of common and Sandwich tern youngsters. All were lost to the rising water levels due to the incessant rain. Even the blue tits and great tits had a hard time, the weather being so cold that the hatching didn’t co-ordinate with the emergence of the tortrix moth caterpillar on which the young ones depend, so the majority of young perished.
As for butterflies, they need spells of warm weather to complete their breeding cycle, which they just haven’t had this year so for some of the early summer species there have been very few sightings reported. It has been interesting to note that for some species, such as the white admiral, they have been able to delay their hatching by about four weeks and since the beginning of this current hot spell I have seen a few freshly emerged specimens, albeit a month later than usual. Dragonflies have been virtually non-existent. They need the temperature of the water to rise to initiate their emergence, but the rain has kept the water temperature down so the dragonflies have been forced to remain in the larval stage until next year.
Some species have actually fared quite well this year; you only have to ask any keen gardeners to know that slugs and snails have flourished! This in turn has meant that those species that eat them, along with worms, such as blackbirds and song thrushes, seem to have had a good breeding year.
Although our wildlife has suffered a really difficult year this year they can generally cope with seasonal fluctuations and, providing there isn’t a prolonged series of poor springs and summers than they are quite adapted to bouncing back. It is also true to say that any young birds that did make it to adulthood has a better chance of surviving through the winter to breed next spring as there will not be so much competition for food.
I think that all this talk of catastrophe for our wildlife based on one dismal breeding year can undermine the bigger picture of the reasons for the long-term decline for much of our wildlife; habitat destruction, pesticides and long-term climate change. Species are conditioned to deal with short-term weather problems; one bad year can be followed by a good year, it is the long-term trend that should be occupying all of our minds.