Belfast Telegraph

2014 'rollercoaster' for wildlife

Extreme weather spelled a "rollercoaster" 2014 for the UK's wildlife, according to the National Trust's annual round-up of the year in nature.

From the stormy winter at beginning of the year to a "superb" June, a very wet August and one of the driest Septembers on record, it was a topsy-turvy year in the countryside and on the coasts, with both winners and losers among plants and animals.

Increasingly extreme weather brought by a changing climate combined with a loss of habitat means the UK's plants and animals are facing a challenging future - and this year could be a sign of things to come, the National Trust said.

The Trust labelled 2014 the "year of the biting fly", with horseflies and mosquitoes benefiting from the warm and often wet summer, while slugs, swallows and house martins, and frogs and toads all did well.

A raft of migrant species also thrived, such as bee-eaters, exotic birds from southern Europe which nested successfully on the Isle of Wight.

But veteran trees were damaged by the storms that raged across the UK at the beginning of the year, while purple emperor and purple hairstreak butterflies did badly.

In good news for picnickers, though, common wasps also had a poor year across much of southern England.

Little terns along the Norfolk coast at Blakeney were forced to nest in low-lying areas after tidal surges changed the profile of the beach and were then hit by high tides in mid-June which flooded their nests and led to a very poor breeding season.

Other seabirds managed to recover from the winter storms to have successful breeding seasons, including shags on the Farne Islands where there was a 37% increase on last year's numbers as a result of a mild summer and plenty of available food.

The mild weather in winter and spring saw insects and spring plants such as snowdrops emerging early, red squirrels mating early and the earliest record of wild bats born in the UK.

But by September, the driest on record and one of the warmest, trees were dropping their leaves early and there was an abundance of autumn nuts, seeds and berries.

The dry conditions spelled bad news for fungi by October, even though that month was wet and mild.

National Trust nature and wildlife specialist Matthew Oates 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.

"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."

And he said: "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."

He added: "We remain worried about the long-term trends which show enormous pressure on species and habitats."

Here is a month by month rundown of how nature fared this year:

January: It was the wettest January on record in England and Wales, but also very mild, with hazel catkins appearing by New Year's Day in some areas, snowdrops out very early, and great tits, robins and wood pigeons all very vocal.

February: The series of storms that battered the UK continued, with an entire sand dune system washed away at Penbryn on the Ceredigion coast in Wales, and early duck nests washed away. But continuing mild weather saw an early spring, with birds nesting, frogs spawning, and at Formby in Liverpool, red squirrels mating early.

March: With the land finally drying out after the record wet winter, butterflies and bumblebees emerged en masse from hibernation. There were spectacular primrose and celandine displays in short, sharp season and a good breeding season for frogs and toads.

April: A poor end to the month hit early spring insects such as bee flies, but there were fantastic bluebell displays at Blickling Estate in Norfolk, though they were finished by end of April. Sand martins colonised fresh sand cliffs created by the winter storms at Portstewart Strand in Northern Ireland.

May: The right weather conditions helped the return of the rare fen violet at Wicken Fen, while the field fleawort was rediscovered on Dunstable Downs after an absence of 40 years due to a long and generally warm spring. There was the earliest record of wild bats born in the UK, at Bodiam Castle in Sussex on May 16.

June: It was hot, dry and sunny after a wet start, and horse flies appeared everywhere. Storm petrels bred on Lundy Island for the first time, but little terns at Blakeney, Norfolk, were washed out, with only 10 young from 108 breeding pairs.

July: In the month's hot, sunny and thundery conditions, there were more biting flies, as well as flying ants and thunder bugs, while blackberries were ripe by the end of the month.

August: Hurricane Bertha helped make the month the eighth wettest August on record, with the wet weather leading to an abundance of mosquitoes, though cool conditions and interchangeable weather kept wasps at bay. Bee-eater s were discovered nesting at Wydcombe on the Isle of Wight, with eight chicks fledging in a record UK breeding attempt.

September: The driest September on record and one of the five warmest saw abundant crops of nuts, seeds and berries, but trees dropped their leaves early. It was a patchy year for apples, depending on localised rainfall.

October: A patchy and generally poor year for fungi due to drought was worsened by slug damage, out in force in the month's wet conditions, but there was a second spring and late flowering of plants. A record number of little gulls were seen over the Farnes, likely to be the result of weather systems in the North Sea pushing them south.

November: Still-warm seas led to a sighting of 28 long-finned whales seen off the Norfolk coast in the first recorded sighting for the county, and sunfish were spotted off Sheringham Park. Roses continued to flower, there was an abundance of field and other voles and mice and frogspawn was found on the Lizard Coast.

December: Seal pup counts revealed that Blakeney Point was the largest seal "rookery" in England, with more than 2,300 pups.


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