2021 weather and wildlife review

Weaned grey seal pup

The climate crisis presented serious challenges for nature across the UK this year. A warm winter, low levels of rain and gale-force winds all contributed to various natural disasters, causing devastation across precious landscapes and affecting the wildlife they support.

Find out how birds, animals, insects, plants and trees fared through the seasons and what we're doing to heal climate harm.

Despite the weather seeming uneventful at times, 2021 was not an easy year for UK wildlife. A handful of extreme weather events and untimely seasonal conditions wreaked havoc on moorland, coastal, and woodland habitats.  

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust, said: 'Climate change is making some forms of extreme weather events the new normal. Heatwaves and heavy rainfall are becoming more frequent and more intense.

'What we’re seeing in the UK with the impacts of wildfires and severe storms such as Arwen and Barra, is how climate change is altering our landscapes forever.'  


 

Spring and summer

An unusually dry March and even drier April saw wildfires sweeping through the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland and Marsden Moor in Yorkshire, burning 200 hectares and 520 hectares of moorland respectively. The fires destroyed rare plants, affected already declining bird and hare populations and scorched important peat soils that lock up carbon. 

Meanwhile, prolonged periods of dry weather and rainfall combined with persistent coastal erosion caused a 300m cliff fall at Golden Cap on the Dorset coast, the largest slippage here for 60 years.

Late frosts in April and May also affected apple blossom in northern parts of England and Northern Ireland. At Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire temperatures dipped to -12C, resulting in the worst apple crop for 20 years.

This cool spring meant warmer summer temperatures didn't boost populations of butterflies, which emerged late due to the unseasonal conditions.

The summer of 2021 is expected to be within the top ten warmest on record, further evidence of a long-term trend of rising temperatures.

" We finish the year with many places changed forever by the recent storms, demonstrating the power of nature, the changing climate and how our role in its future is even more critical"
- Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust

Autumn and winter

After a settled and warm September, it was feared that dry conditions would cause some trees to shed their leaves early and jeopardise the display of autumn colour. Fortunately, there was just enough rain to ensure the trees weren't overly stressed and we saw a vibrant array of colours from late October. 

But the season was brought to an abrupt end. In November, Storm Arwen ripped through the north of the country, causing widespread devastation. The storm toppled hundreds of irreplaceable trees, primarily in Wales, the Lake District and Northumberland. The effects of the damage will be felt for generations. 

Winters are getting milder and it was no different at the start of 2021. Warm and wet conditions allowed tree diseases, such as ash dieback, to take hold with thousands of trees affected and having to be felled.


 

Winners
Beaver swimming in the river

Beavers

In early summer, beavers at the Holnicote Estate, Exmoor had their first kit, which was caught on camera just 18 months after the pair were first introduced to their new home. We're pleased to report the beavers are still doing well, keeping themselves busy and helping us tackle some of the challenges brought by climate change.

Araneus angalatus seen at the Vyne for the first time

Spiders

Rare spiders have been spotted for the first time at the places we care for. In June, our team at The Vyne in Hampshire spotted the angular orbweaver (Araneus angulatus) in a wet woodland. Normally this species is only found on the southern coast of England. A female wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi) was seen for the first time at The Vyne in September. The endangered spider Zora silvestris was also discovered at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire.

Weaned seal at Blakeney National Nature Reserve, Norfolk

Seals

The seals and seal pups at the Farne Islands, Northumberland and Blakeney Point, Norfolk weathered the storms. We are expecting record pup numbers this year. In addition, a record number (190) of grey seal pups were also counted at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland and Orford Ness in Suffolk welcomed 200 grey seals looking for a new home. Seal numbers are increasing thanks to a lack of predators and lots of food.

A bee orchid on the Isle of Wight

Wild flowers

In early summer, carpets of pyramidal orchids could be seen across Rodborough Common, Gloucestershire and bee orchids flourished on the Golden Cap estate, Dorset. Both species were boosted by a dry April and warm June. Meanwhile, the white spires of autumn lady's tresses, the latest orchids to flower, could be seen in their thousands at grasslands and sand dunes in southern England and Wales.

A golden waxcap fungi

Fungi

A warm and damp autumn with little or no frost meant it was a bumper year for grassland fungi. We've seen a proliferation of waxcaps, which thrive in healthy grasslands that have not been ploughed or fertilised. Much of their habitat has been lost since World War II but we found 17 species of waxcap in one meadow in Shropshire. Several new waxcap species were also discovered at Hardcastle Crags in Yorkshire. 

Mixed fortunes
A pair of Arctic Terns on a trial shingle plot

Terns

It was another topsy-turvy year for terns at the coastal places we care for. Arctic tern numbers at Long Nanny in Northumberland rebounded thanks in part to the work of our rangers, who protected the nesting site from predators. Unfortunately, little terns (38 arrived at Long Nanny in May) did not fare as well. High tides flooded the area they use for nesting on the spit and they abandoned the site.

Common Blue Butterfly

Butterflies

The Big Butterfly Count, run by the Butterfly Conservation, recorded its lowest ever numbers this year. It revealed that 60 per cent of species had lower numbers since last year. At the places in our care, butterflies emerged later during the summer due to a cool spring. We saw reduced numbers at Blakeney Point, Holnicote and the New Forest, although the diversity of species was still good. Numbers of large blue butterflies were down in Somerset and Gloucestershire but we believe they have extended their range. On the plus side, the rare purple emperor was spotted at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge and Sheringham Park, Norfolk.

Brent geese at Strangford Lough

Brent geese

Overall the numbers of brent geese arriving on Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland remained stable but the proportion of young birds was low. We counted 27,390 brent geese but only 2.9 per cent were juveniles. Every autumn, the brent geese come travel from Arctic regions of eastern Canada with 75-90 per cent of this population settling in Strangford Lough. After their long migration, the birds feed on the rich eel grass that grows on the mudflats.

Losers
two razorbills stand on the cliffs of the farnes, half their size is their fledgling, its colours black and white, like its parents

Guillemots and razorbills

In late summer, many guillemots and razorbills were found dead or dying along the east coast. It is thought the birds were starving and researchers are trying to find out exactly what caused this mass mortality, which affected birds in countries all around the North Sea.