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The summer bees (and lots of other species) came back

Bleak summers and hard winters took a heavy toll on animal and plant life. But then the weather picked up, sparking an astonishing recovery. Environment Correspondent Linda Stewart reports.

It seemed like the rain would never end. Gone were the halcyon summers we remembered from our childhood – the caterpillars crawling on the nasturtiums, the water fights in the garden, the melting tarmac.

Instead, the rains came with a vengeance, washing out everyone's summer holidays and devastating harvests.

The absolute nadir was the summer of 2008, when it rained every day for a good two months, culminating in the memorable August 16, when severe flooding shut down roads across the country and filled the new Broadway underpass in Belfast to the brim.

And there seemed to be no real respite – until last year.

The late spring was an unpromising start, with deep drifts of snow carpeting the uplands as late as April and killing tens of thousands of farm animals.

But when the sunshine finally arrived, it broke records left, right and centre – and the plants, animals and insects didn't take long to catch up. It wasn't a minute too soon – last year species such as the small, large and green-veined whites butterflies all bounced back from their worst year on record in 2012 to above average numbers.

Meanwhile, the warm summer helped the small tortoiseshell record its best year in a decade and boosted numbers of migrants such as clouded yellow butterflies from the continent.

This summer, the warm weather is helping many of our wild species start to recover lost ground.

This spring a corncrake was heard calling on Rathlin Island for the first time in more than a decade, while moth enthusiasts reported a number of records for Northern Ireland.

And Ulster Beekeepers Association spokesman Ken Tait says the honeybees are doing a lot better this year.

"There's been much better sunshine right from the word go and they're able to do a lot more foraging. It looks like it's going to be a reasonably good crop," adds Ken.

"We had heavy losses because of the early spring and the cold snap last year. I know one man who had 12 hives and he lost them all, and I lost all three of mine."

The Department of Agriculture says last year's honey yields more than doubled on those of 2012, a very bad year.

And Co Antrim beekeeper Dawn Stocking says that this week she took her first harvest of honey in five years.

"The rainy weather basically meant the bees weren't going out – they don't like going out in the wet weather," she says.

"I've had about three years of no honey and whatever honey was produced I left so the bees could have it over the wintertime," she says.

"Last year there were a couple of beekeepers in Antrim who had a fantastic summer – they were able to get 500lb-600lb of honey. But I didn't get anything last year, because I split one of the hives after they started to swarm. I am hopefully going to get some honey from them this afternoon, which will be the first taking of honey in five years."

Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers chairman Michael Young says we're seeing a 50% increase in bees breeding this summer.

"It has been better weather this year – one of the best years we've had for maybe 15 years," he says. "Sunshine is the ideal weather for them. Bees can't fly in the rain – it kills them. They can stand freezing temperatures and they can stand hot temperatures, but they can't work in the rain because once they get back they get dysentery in the hives.

"So if we have a bumper week, the bees can make 10lb-15lb of honey. But if there is a week of rain the next week, they will eat all that honey and end up with empty hives again."

The high temperatures and sunshine we've been enjoying are paying dividends for our birds, according to RSPB senior conservation officer Claire Barnett.

"The swifts seem to be doing really well – there are a lot of young flying or about to fly. Because it's dry and warm, birds get a better opportunity to get out and forage," she says.

"Barn owls also do much better in sunny weather – they are very susceptible to high rainfall.

"We only have a small number of barn owls and they do much better when it's dry. So far so good – as far as I know we have three or four young fledged at one site and are waiting for more young at another."

Many garden birds need to feed their young at least some insects and they are expected to do exceptionally well this summer because they have been able to get out and forage.

"Ground-nesting birds like lapwing and curlew are doing really well this year because they aren't getting washed out," Claire says.

"If you have a very, very bad summer, things like goldcrest who rely on insects will really suffer – and they had a big crash. But it only takes a year or two of good summers and they are back up.

"But for other more long-lived birds like lapwing and curlew it will be two years before they start to breed again after a crash, and swifts don't breed until their fourth year so it takes longer for them to recover."

Many species will rear more than one brood if the weather is good, but despite the good weather last summer, this may not have happened – because of the late spring.

"We had lapwing in the Belfast Hills which turned up in spring, went away and then came back. If they don't breed successfully first time they will try again, but they didn't get that chance last year," Claire says.

Michael Calvert, who manages his farmland in Co Down to encourage wildlife, says birds are racking up multiple clutches.

"We have a pair of tree sparrows in our own garden which are onto their third clutch now," he says.

It's also good weather for our nastier invertebrates, according to horticulturalist Gareth Austin, who visited an emergency doctor in Donegal for an infected cleg bite and found he was the fourth to be seen with the same complaint in a single day.

"There are a lot of pests and wee insects and bugs and critters about because the winter wasn't particularly cold. People are reporting flying ants and lots of slugs and a lot of earwigs in particular," he says.

"There has also been a good explosion in weeds around the garden – the weeds flowered early and deposited a vast amount of seeds so there are a lot of weeds about."

But there is good news for gardeners who are reporting a good year of growth.

"It's a good year for plums and apples as the blossom came very, very early," Gareth says. "Fruit crops like strawberries and loganberries seem to be very good, but the bedding plants seem to be suffering with the heat, the intense wet and the mushiness that is about at the minute."

But many experts are warning that two fine summers aren't enough to bring back our wildlife from the devastation caused by a long series of wet summers and harsh winters.

Bee expert Michael Young warns that this year's increase in breeding is coming back from a very low point and, with hives in Northern Ireland suffering 40% losses over last winter, much of this increase could be lost again in the winter to come.

"They haven't really come back as such – they're just hanging in there. There is no real bounce-back yet," he says.

Meanwhile, Dr Neil Reid from Quercus at Queen's University Belfast, points out that the most recent winter wrought havoc on seabirds, thanks to a relentless series of Atlantic depressions.

"It hit overwintering seabirds off the wet coast very badly and Birdwatch Ireland has been reporting a dramatic increase in the number of dead guilllemots and kittiwakes being collected off beaches. That means the numbers returning to places like Rathlin will be down this year," he says.

"It's certainly the case that in the poor years a lot of damage was done to the butterfly and moth populations. This summer has been nice and dry and numbers are beginning to climb back up, but they're not back up to pre-flooding levels."

And moth expert Andy Crory, nature reserves manager with Ulster Wildlife, says it hasn't been a particularly good summer for moths and butterflies, due to the changeable weather.

"If some species have decreased by 80%, last year isn't going to be enough to bring them back up," he says.

"There are species such as a mapwinged swift and the brown silverwing – I'm thinking I should be plagued with them and I'm not. I can't understand when the weather is so mild that they haven't been about.

"It's hot weather, but it's blustery. At the same time I'm seeing species which I've never seen before – there are new species occurring all the time.

"We recorded three new species for Murlough in three days – I didn't expect that.

"If you had a bad summer 50 years ago, it wasn't so bad because they had so many habitats to come back in to.

"But now they're restricted to very small areas which are wee pinpoints on the map of Northern Ireland.

"If you have good weather, wildlife does better – plants grow, insects fly, birds sing. But with global warming, weather patterns are becoming much more unpredictable and we're seeing extremes we haven't had before, like the rain, lightning and hail in England.

"What we're looking at in the future is weather that is much more unpredictable and it will be difficult if you're trying to conserve things because weather is becoming more of an issue."

Making hay (again) while the sun shines

You can't have failed to notice the tractors trundling round the country roads last week as farmers worked to get the hay made.

Some farmers are making their second cut of hay, according to UFU deputy president Barclay Bell.

"Last week was a tremendous week for getting the hay cut," he says. "It was long hours working from early morning to late at night but when the weather is good you don't mind doing that.

"The winter barley harvest would be two weeks ahead on last year. Last year was a very good year but it was a very late spring. This year is slightly different."

Different farmers are looking for different weather conditions, but the overall picture is a good one, he said.

"On the Ards peninsula they would be very glad to see a little bit of rain," Mr Bell says.

"The arable men in Co Down and the north west were looking for a good dry sunny spell, but the potato farmers would probably be happy to see a wee taste of rain as well.

"But as 2014 goes, the weather has been fairly kind to us. There's still a lot of crop to harvest and we still need good weather right up until the end of September."

The first cut of silage was taken back in May and for many the second cut is imminent.

"We would have had a tremendous crop of silage the first time round, but probably because of the dry weather through June and July the second cut of silage was a lighter crop. Most will probably take a third cut. I think in general men are building up a good stock of fodder now for the winter time."

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