Balmy 2017 threw Britain's wildlife clock haywire

a snowy white seal pup sitting on the sand with its mum close behind
Published : 19 Dec 2017 Last update : 02 Jan 2018

We may have experienced one of the hottest years on record but it has proved confusing for nature, our annual wildlife and weather review reveals.

With traditional British seasons becoming more muddled, 2017 sparked a “freak” year for nature. Amid the changing climates and rising temperatures, ambitions to reverse alarming declines in UK wildlife are more urgent than ever.

Nature expert Matthew Oates, said, 'At times, it feels like the seasons are becoming less distinctive, and that makes it extremely difficult to predict how nature will react. Certain species are good at adapting, which is great, whereas others are struggling – some of them badly.'

Climate change, early bloomers and squid

Mild winters and damp summers are key expressions of climate change and often lead to rampant vegetation growth. This can be damaging for small annual plants, many insects and reptiles. Premature spring weather prompted many flowers to arrive earlier than usual, with elder and dog rose, usually June flowering, blooming by April.

Poor crop yields elsewhere in Europe brought unprecedented numbers of hawfinch to UK shores while the autumn storms led to an invasion of the unnerving Portuguese Man O’ War. Warmer waters have also returned squid, anchovies and Bluefin tuna to UK seas, and are cited as a reason why several minke whales were found dead off the Suffolk coast.

A fine spring

Balmy weather in May led to a pretty good nesting season for birds and a positive flight period for insects. Colonies of elusive Purple Emperor butterflies were discovered at the Sheringham Park – they haven’t been seen in Norfolk for 40 years. It was also a good year for bumblebees, with record numbers reported at some of our places.

The latter months of the year saw an explosion of berries, nuts and seeds, while there was a good apple harvest and reports of a bumper year for acorns. This was thanks to the fine spring, which also meant crops were harvested earlier than usual and encouraged a remarkable influx of the mythical hawfinch - the largest, rarest and most elusive finch.

Storm Ophelia rages

The dry and mild winter caused a low spawn count among some amphibians. At Sandscale Haws in Cumbria, rangers reported low numbers of Natterjack Toads, attributed to a lack of suitable breeding pools.

Storm Ophelia, which swept across parts of the UK in October, brought with it an invasion of the beautiful – and venomous – Portuguese Man O’ War but caused higher mortality rates among some grey seal populations in Wales and the South West.

Other challenges to nature

In addition to negotiating changing weather patterns, nature is up against a host of other challenges. The threat of pests and diseases on the nation’s trees snowballed in 2017, spearheaded by the ominous ash dieback. We are trying to counteract this diversifying locally native trees species and thinning ash, to increase the chance of some specimens becoming resistant, including in the Peak District.

Matthew Oates said, 'Successes transpire thanks to the toil and diligence of our rangers, gardeners and volunteers, innovation and experimentation, and the awe-inspiring ability of nature to bounce back.'

Stonehenge landscape, Wiltshire

Timeline: 2017 wildlife and weather review 

Explore the nature and weather highlights of 2017, month by month.