2020 weather and wildlife review

Large blue butterflies on Rodborough Common

Extreme weather and warm temperatures have had a huge impact on wildlife over the last 12 months, but nature also thrived during the peace and quiet of lockdown.

Discover how birds, animals, insects, plants and trees fared during the hottest year on record and learn more about our work to protect nature.

It's been a year of mixed fortunes for the UK's wildlife. While the lockdown in the spring saw successful breeding seasons for many species and warm temperatures resulted in a bumper year for blossom, climate change extremes and volatile weather conditions have also had a devastating impact on the natural world. 

Ben McCarthy, Head of Conservation and Ecology Restoration at the National Trust, said: 'Changes to the seasons and changeable weather can play havoc with our wildlife, knocking the delicate balance of nature out of kilter with serious knock on effects for us all. We are already locked into significant environmental change that means snowy winters will become increasingly rare, whilst extreme events in the summer will add stress to our threatened wildlife.'

He added: 'There are more losers than winners with the abundance and distribution of many species continuing to decrease and some groups particularly vulnerable to climate change.'

Tackling climate change

Not only are we restoring the most important landscapes in our care but we're also looking to create bigger areas for wildlife to thrive, harnessing the power of nature to develop solutions to help tackle the climate emergency. We're restoring blanket bogs that lock up carbon, protecting existing wildlife, creating 25,000 hectares of priority habitat by 2025, restoring rivers and planting 20 million trees over the next decade. 
 

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2020: a mixed picture for UK wildlife

Discover how wildlife fared in 2020. Your continued support is helping us carry out vital work to look after wildlife and tackle the effects of the climate emergency. Thank you.

Wildlife winners

Birds

In April, our rangers were excited to report that 11 peregrine falcon chicks were about to fledge across four areas of land you help us care for. Three of the chicks hatched at Corfe Castle in Dorset and the remaining eight were discovered at three different sites at High Peak Moors in the Peak District. 

The absence of people at Blakeney Point in Norfolk also provided a boost for the tern colony, which had its most successful breeding season in 25 years. More than 200 little tern chicks fledged, which is the highest number since 1994. The common tern also had a good year, with 289 pairs fledging at least 170 chicks, the most since 1999. And 2,425 pairs of sandwich terns fledged 1,100 chicks – triple that of 2019. 

Easterly winds in the autumn attracted record numbers of migrant birds, including the Rufous Scrub-robin,which was seen in Britain for the first time in 40 years at Stiffkey saltmarshes in Norfolk. In November, a Crag martin, usually at home in the mountains of southern Europe, appeared on the cliffs at Kingsdown in Kent.

The mild winter suited the resident Dartford warbler, which had been hit by harsh weather in previous years. A ring ouzel, which normally winters in the Mediterranean, also benefited from milder conditions at Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia.  

Trees, shrubs and plants 

The long, warm and dry spring resulted in a good year for blossom. Many of the gardens and orchards in our care had prolonged displays of blossom throughout March, April and May. 

Meadows in Purbeck were carpeted with pink stork's-bill flowers, which thrived in the dry conditions. It was also a good year for early spider orchids, known for their distinctive flower spikes. Weather patterns throughout the year and mild conditions in early autumn meant many trees, hedgerows and shrubs produced an abundance of acorns, conkers, sloes and rowan berries.

In November we continued our work to restore Marsden Moor (devastated by fire in April 2019) by continuing to plant sphagnum moss, which stores water and helps to reduce the risk of fire and flooding. Hundreds of thousands of sphagnum plants have been planted so far. 

Butterflies, moths and bees 

Warm winds from the continent brought record numbers of migrant moths in the summer and early autumn. Among these was the Clifden nonpareil, one of the UK’s largest moth species that has returned to southern England after going extinct in the 1960s. It was spotted on a beech tree at Buckinghamshire's Cliveden (its namesake) 250 years after it was first found. Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and Ware Cliffs in Dorset also reported their first sightings of the moth.

There were also reports from the New Forest of silver-studded blue and small heath butterflies flying up to a month ahead of schedule. A marsh fritillary was also spotted at The Coombes in Wiltshire for the first time. We counted 750 large blue butterflies over the summer on Rodborough Common in Gloucestershire following the largest ever project to reintroduce the species, which haven't been seen in the area for 150 years. 

Meanwhile, Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset was buzzing with 37 sightings of the rare shrill carder bumblebee. The warm spring brought overwintering shrill carder queens out of hibernation much earlier than usual, and the first worker was recorded on 21st May, some three or four weeks ahead of normal timings. New season queens and males were seen on the estate's field margins in August, confirming that the shrill carder colonies had successfully reproduced. 

Seals 

We counted 187 grey seals at County Down's Strangford Lough, which is six more than in 2019 and their best year to date. There were 45 harbour seal pups born on Strangford Lough this year, compared to 28 pups born in 2019. We're also expecting record 4,000 seal pups at Blakeney Point in Norfolk. The first grey seal pups were also born at Marloes in Pembrokeshire. 

Beavers 

At the beginning of the year, we released the first ever beavers at the Holnicote Estate in Somerset as part of our efforts to prevent flooding and manage the effects of climate change. They have settled in well and in November we were pleased to report that they had built a dam out of tree branches and vegetation.

Wildlife losers

Birds 

In June, storms, high tides and strong winds spelt disaster for Arctic terns at Northumberland's Long Nanny, where several nests were washed away. This seabird has been in serious decline since the 1980s with fewer than 2,000 pairs now left in the UK.

The tern colony at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland also struggled this year, with numbers of sandwich, arctic and common tern all lower than 2019 because of high tides and predators. And Sandwich terns failed to breed on nearby Dunnyneill and Black Rock after their nests were washed away during high tides. 

Barn owls at Gunby didn’t have a good breeding year. We suspect that heavy rainfall in June may have caused their main food at Gunby, field voles, to have drowned in their nests, so little food available to feed barn owl chicks. Field vole numbers were already down due to the persistent heavy rainfall last autumn and winter.

Flowers, trees and heather  

Due to a long, dry period in May and June, early marsh-orchids and autumn ladies tresses didn't flower at Golden Cap in Dorset this year. But green winged-orchids flowered in their thousands.

Ash trees were badly affected by the lengthy warm and dry spell, which put them under additional stress and made them more susceptible to ash dieback. We're sad to report that as a result 40,000 trees will have to be felled at the land in our care. 

Heather at the Ysbyty Estate in north Wales and Long Mynd in Shropshire was damaged by a beetle, which continued to feed on it throughout this year's mild winter. Normally, the beetle naturally dies off in cold winters. 

Coastal landscapes 

In February, Storm Ciara battered the beach we look after at Formby in Merseyside. Strong winds and high tides caused significant damage to the boardwalk and natural dune cliffs, which can collapse without warning, have formed all along the coastline. Rubble that had previously been buried was also washed out of the dunes.

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