2019 wildlife and weather review

Seals at the Blakeney National Nature Reserve

Topsy-turvy weather, volatile temperatures, a stop-start spring, and a changeable summer has attracted new visitors from abroad and made winners and losers out of the UK's resident wildlife.

Discover how we work throughout the year to protect precious landscapes, create nature-friendly farmland and look after the animals and birds that need our help.

The beginning of the year was fairly settled with average temperatures. The start of February brought snow in the north and east, but temperatures peaked to 21°C in London as a result of a plume of warm air from Africa.

March ushered in strong north-westerly winds and storms, while temperatures soared again in April, which saw the arrival of migrant birds, such as the rarely spotted lesser whitethroat. 

A stop-start spring, culminating with snow on the hills of North Wales and the North of England at the beginning of May, affected the migratory patterns of birds and butterflies. Meanwhile, a changeable and unpredictable summer, characterised by short, sharp rainstorms, created tough conditions for puffins and water voles.

The end of the year was warm and wet with prevailing onshore winds, which brought Man O War jellyfish onto the beaches of Cornwall. The trees held on to their leaves for longer than usual and red squirrels in Northern Ireland changed their breeding patterns. 

Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation and restoration ecology said:

“Clearly the recent floods have been devastating for the people who have been flooded and the wider communities affected, including our farmers.

“At this time of year the floods will probably only have a short term impact on wildlife. There will be some birds such as waders e.g snipe, lapwing and golden plover who will move off flooded areas whereas ducks,  geese and swans might find opportunities and move in.

“Small mammals and fish might be displaced and some might find their way to new areas of suitable habitat if available.

“Our topsy-turvy weather with more significant weather events is now the new norm and we need to take urgent action to tackle it. Better management of the natural environment is key to meeting this challenge."

Wildlife winners

Butterflies, moths, and dragonflies

Warm weather during the early half of the year saw moths, butterflies and dragonflies arrive in from southern and eastern countries. 

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies arrived in droves for the first time in a decade. More than 420,000 of these orange and black spotted butterflies were spotted across the country, particularly in the north east, Lake District, Northern Ireland and south west. August also saw other new visitors, and 50 long-tailed blue butterflies were seen across the south coast  of England, mating and laying eggs. 

The rare large-winged clifden nonpareil moth has reemerged in the last few years after going extinct in the 1960s. June, July, and October also saw high numbers of migrant dragonflies, including the red-veined darter and vagrant emperor and large numbers of dragonflies, such as the common hawker, emperor, and demoiselle. 


Rare birds from warmer climes were also seen during the summer. One brown booby, normally found in the Carribean or Venezuela, was spotted for the first time in Kent and two more were seen in Cornwall. In the autumn the American black tern and the red-eyed vireo songbird were spotted in Dorset and Cornwall respectively.

Numbers of starling, skylark, and lapwing bucked national trends in Pembrokeshire, where our rangers recorded 64 different species and 23,000 birds in the National Trust's first winter bird survey. These birds have been able to flourish largely thanks to our nature-friendly farming methods. It's also been a good year for the sandwich tern, little tern, and light-bellied brent geese. 


Grey seals on UK shores appear to be thriving despite seal pups struggling in many of the places in our care. In January, rangers at Blakeney National Nature Reserve in Norfolk reported that this year’s grey seal pups surpassed 3,000 for the first time.

Wildflowers, seeds and berries

Wildflowers like orchids did very well, possibly because of last year's drought. The bee orchid, dark-red helleborine, autumn ladies' tresses, and the green-winged orchid were among those that enjoyed strong growing conditions in Cumbria and Morecambe Bay. It was also a bumper year for all varieties of seeds and berries. A mild winter and warm and wet spring created good conditions for pollination. 


" Sightings of migrant insects and birds are becoming more common. This is a result of our changing climate. "
- Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation and restoration ecology
How we help nature thrive
" Like all conservation organisations, we are working hard to protect and care for habitats, and everyone has a part to play in the battle against climate change. "
- Keith Jones, climate change expert
Wildlife losers

Mountain hares and ground-nesting birds

The aftermath of last year's drought was devastating for wildlife and nature in 2019. The fire on Marsden Moor during Easter weekend took hold quickly because of dry conditions and destroyed 700 hectares of precious peatland, which was home to mountain hares and rare ground-nesting birds, such as curlew and twite. 

Natterjack toads

Natterjack toads, known for their loud croak and distinctive markings, had a tough time this year. Many of the pools they rely on dried up in May and June, leading to a loss of spawn and tadpoles. A second attempt to spawn was wiped out because of an exceptionally high spring tide. Our rangers are recording the earliest and latest spawn dates to see how the natterjack toads are adapting to climate change. 

Ash trees

Ash dieback, a serious disease caused by a fungus that kills ash trees, spread further north and west across the country. Trees on the South Downs were badly hit with the rate of infection fuelled by last year's drought. 

Water voles and seabirds

Heavy rainfall in June, July and September made life difficult for water voles at Malham Tarn in Yorkshire. While water voles are well equipped for water, heavy flooding, especially in the breeding season, is fatal for babies who are too young to swim.

Sandwich terns and Arctic terns had a rough time at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. This is thought to be because storms and predators disrupted last year's breeding season. Meanwhile, puffin, guillemot and shag populations were hit by June's heavy rainfall on the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland. 




What we're doing to help endangered wildlife
How wildlife fared in previous years