Wildlife faced astonishing weather extremes in 2018: National Trust
Seal colonies and large blue butterflies saw record years, while other species struggled as temperatures swung from freezing to heatwave conditions.
Extremes from Arctic temperatures to a sizzling heatwave resulted in a roller-coaster year for the UK’s wildlife, the National Trust said.
From a prolonged, harsh end to the winter, which saw the “Beast from the East” sweep in with snow and freezing temperatures, to a scorching summer, the UK faced “astonishing” changes to the weather.
Wildlife reacted in dramatic ways, with some species enjoying record years and other struggling to cope with the unusual conditions, the Trust said in its annual review of the weather and its impact on nature.
While it was a good year for species including the large blue butterfly, at one time extinct in the UK, and grey seals breeding on the east coast, in other places creatures such as natterjack toads and Cheddar Gorge’s feral goats suffered.
Dr David Bullock said: “This year’s unusual weather does give some indication of how climate change could look and feel, irrespective of whether this year’s was linked to climate change.
“It’s becoming less predictable every year to gauge what sort of weather we are likely to experience, and what this means for our wildlife.”
For only the fourth time since the 1960s, the whole of the UK experienced a more “traditional” winter with widespread snow in January, February and March and temperatures plunging to minus 14C.
This included the Beast from the East at the end of February, swiftly followed by Storm Emma and another cold snap dubbed the mini Beast from the East, which brought more snow.
But summer saw temperatures soaring above 30C and drought, parching the country – creating the conditions for wildfires in the uplands which destroyed habitat and peat.
Much of the country then experienced a “second spring” in autumn, with strong grass growth and even spring flowers blooming such as violets and primroses.
The cold February hit seabirds and marine animals including starfish and lobsters along the east coast, while goat numbers in Cheddar Gorge fell because few kids survived the icy conditions.
The summer’s warm, dry conditions spelled a good year for the rare large blue butterfly, which recorded record numbers not just for the south west, but globally.
Silver studded blue and chalkhill blue butterflies also did well, while wasps made a strong comeback in the north west and north Wales after a poor 2017.
There were record breeding seasons for grey seals at Blakeney, Norfolk, and the Farne Islands, Northumberland, thought to be as a result of mild weather and a lack of disturbance.
And the warm weather meant northern blue fin tuna were spotted off Lizard Point, Cornwall.
The hot, dry conditions did not suit all species however, with natterjack toads at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria, struggling as the heat dried out pools essential for their survival.
And next year’s butterfly season may be much poorer as the hot summer dried off grasslands and plants such as thyme, leaving caterpillars little to feed on.
While the weather brought a bumper year for fruit including apples, pears, figs and sloes, as well as fungi, it also encouraged the spread of pests such as box moth and oak processionary moth.
Dr Bullock said: “This year has been the most astonishing in terms of the switch-over from cold to hot and then, later in the year, enormous grass growth.
“What it’s told lots of us is there’s nothing more certain than uncertainty.”
Surprises such as the migrant silver moth turning up in its highest ever numbers at Northern Ireland’s Mount Stewart and the arrival of blue fin tuna were a “wake-up call” to the changes people would be seeing in their lifetimes.
While nature is adaptable to challenging conditions, it does not have as much space in as many places to take refuge or find an equitable climate as it used to, he added.
The National Trust is working to improve the habitats where wildlife is found and create joined-up areas of the countryside or “nature corridors” to enable species to move around easily if they need to, he said.
This will be both through “wild areas where nature is in control”, but also through nature-friendly farming.