Matthew Oates: weather and wildlife in 2016

Mowing with a scythe on the Lizard, Cornwall

Ten years ago the National Trust began conducting annual reviews of the impact of the year’s weather on our wildlife.  Although every year has been unique, bringing different wildlife winners and losers, some patterns have become clear.

Winters have become milder, and often wetter and stormier, with the exception of the more traditional winter of 2010-11.  Last year brought the mildest December on record.  After a cold start, this December has been tracking it.  Children in the south now rarely play in snow. 
 
Spring has jumped the gun and come earlier, and been more vulnerable for it – with cold or wet weather setting in after early, promising starts.  May has become a disappointing month. 
 
The UK last enjoyed a good summer back in 2006.  Since then, we have at best experienced blemished summers, with spells of fine weather ending abruptly as the jet stream suddenly jumped.  Whatever happened to the Mediterranean climate some of us thought ‘global warming’ would bring?
 
The most benign month of recent years has been September.  People planning on getting married would be wise to choose September. 
 
Climate change seems to be narrowing the gulf between our winters and summers.  The impact on wildlife has been enormous, and at a time when many species are declining sharply as farming as other land uses intensify.
 
This year was remarkable for the rampant growth of grass and other coarse vegetation, like bracken and bramble.  The last few years were strong grass growth years too, but 2016 exceeded them by far.  Our ranger teams battled to keep footpaths clear, and nature conservation grazing regimes were often found wanting as conservationists and their farming partners struggled with the excessive growth. 
 
Low-growing plants were swamped, especially diminutive annuals, and populations of insects associated with small plants, bare ground pockets or short swards plummeted.  That means it has been a poor year for many bees, butterflies, grasshoppers and other warmth-loving insects, particularly those associated with short turf or bare ground. 
 
It may well be that many insect populations were reduced by the mild winter, which prevented successful hibernation of larvae.  The knock-ons up the food chain will be significant, and what affects our insects today are likely to affect our tomorrow.
 
But right now, we are wondering: where’s winter?