2016: A review of the year's weather and wildlife

Common Blue Butterfly
Published : 28 Dec 2016 Last update : 20 Dec 2016

Bee and butterfly numbers have slumped after 2016 brought a tenth year of unsettled weather. 

Mild winter and spring weather led to extremely high grass growth, leading to a good year for farmers with livestock and for making silage or hay. 

But the grass growth meant a difficult year for warmth-loving insects, including common meadowland butterflies. 

Our nature specialist Matthew Oates says: ‘Another year of unsettled weather has seen extraordinary grass growth – good for livestock and hay making, but bad for many plants and insects which like short turf grassland, like the common blue butterfly.

‘Our rangers have had to work closely with farmers and graziers to get grazing levels right for these plants and insects. 

‘In many places it’s been a struggle, but at a handful of places like Somerset’s Collard Hill – home to the large blue butterfly – graziers have triumphed.’

2016: a year of grass growth

A mild winter, cold spring and mild, wet weather in May and June led to very high grass growth in early summer. 

Grass grew at a rate almost a third faster than in previous years, according to Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board figures. 

Rampant grass growth was good news for farmers making hay in many parts of the country. 

  • At Packwood House, Warwickshire, twice the number of hay bales were collected compared to the previous year. 
  • Tenant farmers Roly and Camilla Puzey made 25 per cent more silage on Saddlescombe Farm, South Downs, as last year. 
  • However, on the Hafod y Llan estate, Snowdonia, intermittent rain in early summer meant that farmers struggled to make either hay or silage.
Hay baling in the Brecon Beacons
Hay baling in the Brecon Beacons

But in much of the country strong grass growth badly affected butterfly and bee species reliant on small plants that were crowded out by vigorous-growing grasses. 

  • At Lytes Cary bumblebee numbers plummeted as wildflowers in the field margins were outgrown by grasses, with bumblebee numbers down by 85 per cent. 
  • On Purbeck, Dorset, meadow butterflies struggled: marbled white numbers plummeted by 73 per cent compared to last year and volunteers saw 23 per cent fewer common blue butterflies.
A Marbled White butterfly at Stonehenge
A Marbled White butterfly at Stonehenge

'Plenty for our herd'

Rob Havard, beef farmer and tenant at Croome Park, Worcestershire, says: ‘This year has been the second really good year for us in terms of grass growth.’

His herd of 70 Aberdeen Angus cattle graze across 230 acres all year round.

‘The warm weather in the summer encouraged a really good rate of grass growth and then as soon as it started to get a bit dry we had a little rain which was ideal to encourage further growth.  We also enjoyed a variety of flowering plants as well.’

Rob Havard inspects his cattle at Croome Court
Rob Havard inspects his cattle at Croome Court

An unsettled decade

Nature expert Matthew Oates adds: ‘In the ten years we’ve been reviewing wildlife at our places we’ve noticed pulses of unsettled weather become the norm. We last enjoyed a good summer in 2006. 

‘Mild winters and periodically wet summers have seen common wasp numbers apparently slump in many parts of the country, along with common ‘meadowland’ insects like the common blue butterfly. 

‘This could have a knock on effect on the invertebrates, birds and bats that eat them. And what affects insects today could well affect us tomorrow.’ 

" One of the great successes of the last decade has been the ways farmers and conservationists have worked together to reverse wildlife declines. "
- Matthew Oates, National Trust nature and wildlife specialist

Farming and nature

‘Long term, changes in how we manage land has also led to wildlife declines – with more than half of species experiencing a drop in numbers in the last 50 years,’ Matthew says.

‘But one of the great successes of the last decade have been the ways farmers and conservationists have worked together to reverse wildlife declines in many of our places.’

In south west England work by conservation charities and arable farmers to benefit wildlife have resulted in numbers of cirl bunting, a rare bird that has retreated to Devon and Cornwall, increase by over 800 per cent since 1989. 15 per cent of Britain’s cirl bunting population live on our farms along the south west coast.