Balmy 2017 threw Britain's wildlife clock haywire

Press release
Common blue butterfly on common fleabane
Published : 28 Dec 2017 Last update : 02 Jan 2018

Traditional British seasons were plunged into chaos in 2017 as one of the hottest years on record sparked a “freak” year for nature, the National Trust’s annual wildlife and weather review reveals.

Spring flowers blooming in autumn, unprecedented numbers of hawfinch and an invasion of the unnerving Portuguese Man O’ War are among peculiar findings in the review for 2017

The Trust said its ambitious plans to reverse alarming declines in UK wildlife are more urgent than ever amid changing climates and rising temperatures

Nature expert Matthew Oates, said, “Looking at the bigger picture, 2017 has been one of – if not the hottest – years ever, and that’s led to more unusual occurrences in the natural world, globally and here in the UK.”

“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. We need to give wildlife the space, time and where necessary, the support it needs, not only to survive, but to thrive.”

For once, winter stayed within its usual parameters, although there were few extended periods of cold or frost. The mild start to the year – combined with a damp summer – contributed to rampant vegetation growth across the country. This recurring trend – one of the main expressions of climate change – can be damaging for small annual plants, many insects and reptiles.

The dry and mild winter also 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.

The premature spring weather prompted many flowers to arrive earlier than usual. Wild daffodils appeared in the Teign Valley in February while elder and dog rose, which usually flower in June, were blooming by April. Both continued to experience an odd year, flowering into the autumn months at sites from Cornwall to Dorking. Unfortunately, 2017 wasn’t great for orchids, which had done well in recent years.

Balmy weather in May led to a good nesting season for birds – the Little Tern doing well at Blakeney Point in Norfolk – and a positive flight period for insects. The Heather Colletes bee thrived on the Purbeck heaths in Dorset, while the elusive Purple Emperor, the UK’s second largest butterfly, was spotted at Bookham Common, Surrey on June 11 – its earliest appearance for over 120 years. A colony of Emperors was also discovered at the Trust’s Sheringham Park – they haven’t been seen in Norfolk for 40 years.

There were other instances of warmer temperatures encouraging species to colonise new areas. In the summer, the rare willow emerald damselfly was discovered by Trust volunteers along the Royal Military Canal in Kent, while Atlantic Bluefin tuna have been drawn back to UK waters. Previously common on our shores, the Bluefin, recently spotted off Watch Point in Cornwall, vanished in the 1950s after the herring and mackerel they eat was overfished. Now, rising sea temperatures have brought back their food source, and the Bluefin has followed.

Warmer waters have also caused squid and anchovies to return to UK seas, and are cited as a reason why several minke whales were found dead off the Suffolk coast.

Overall, it was a good year for bumblebees, with record numbers reported on parts of the Lytes Cary Manor estate in Somerset. Wasps endured mixed fortunes and, despite the warm spring, continue to be scarce in many places.

For a time, it looked like the best summer for a decade was on the cards. Then, the schools broke up, the clouds assembled, and the UK endured one of the wettest August’s on record. This killed off many winged creatures, though it benefitted farmers with livestock as grasses grew rapidly once more. The UK experienced its first wet September since 2008.

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. Thousands washed up on UK beaches in what was the biggest infestation of the jellyfish-like creatures since 2003. Huge spikes in sightings were recorded at Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula and along the Golden Cap, Dorset, while they were noted as far north as Cumbria and on beaches in West Sussex. The storms also caused higher mortality rates among grey seal populations, especially those in Wales and the South West.

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. The disease is rampant in the Sussex downs with a report from Nyman’s suggesting there are now more infected trees than healthy ones.

Rangers at the Crom Estate in County Fermanagh and Arnside in Cumbria also reported their ongoing battle to save their ash trees. At some of its places, including White Peak in the Peak District, the Trust is diversifying locally native trees species and thinning ash, to increase the chance of some specimens becoming resistant.

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. The heavily-laden boughs were the legacy of a fine spring, which also meant crops were harvested earlier than usual.

While the UK’s autumn fruits were out in force, the same can’t be said for other parts of Europe, many of which endured a poor tree seed crop. On the upside, this was good news for birders in the UK, who witnessed a remarkable influx of the mythical hawfinch - the largest, rarest and most elusive finch. Flocks in excess of fifty were reported – more than the most dedicated ornithologist could hope to see in a lifetime.

The late summer rains contributed to a prolific year for fungi. The nationally rare powdercap stranger was found at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire in October while rangers on the Malham estate in Yorkshire discovered an array of extremely rare waxcaps.

Matthew Oates said, “These days, there are huge discrepancies between the winners and losers in the natural world. I’m extremely worried about some species – especially some of our insects and our native ash trees – but also buoyed by success stories that emerge at our places each year.

“Successes happen thanks to the toil and diligence of our rangers, gardeners and volunteers, their innovation and experimentation, and the awe-inspiring ability of nature to bounce back. It’s these special moments that we need to keep sharing to inspire others and encourage them to play their part in the restoration and protection of our natural world.”

JANUARY

  • A mild first half of the month, followed by a cold snap that lasted for several days, before warmer weather resumed.
  • Bumblebees started to appear in the mild conditions towards the end of the month.

FEBRUARY

  • After a wet and windy start to the month, the weather became more settled and it was generally mild. It was the ninth warmest February since 1910.
  • Bats and insects appeared to have hibernated well, undisturbed by mild unseasonal weather. 

MARCH

  • A mild and dry month, high pressure led to several bouts of sunny weather, making it the joint fifth warmest March in a series since 1910.
  • The mild weather was good for nesting birds, and many spring flowers blossomed ahead of the norm.

APRIL

  • Following a fantastic start to the month, 2017’s bluebells peaked over Easter before the weather turned.
  • A project to revive corn buntings in Cornwall continues to bear fruit, with a good nesting season reported at West Pentire.

MAY

  • A high number of breeding pairs of buzzards (14 successful) was recorded on the Sherborne Estate, the home of BBC’s Springwatch for 2017.
  • Three nights of intense frost blackened many trees in gardens and the countryside, and scorched off early bracken fronds.
  • The purple hairstreak butterfly, whose larvae feed on oak leaves in May, emerged in superb numbers from mid-June.

JUNE

  • After a variable start to the month, the weather settled after the first week and a period of very warm weather ensued – with the hottest June day for 40 years.
  • June 11th produced the earliest appearance of Purple Emperor since 1893, at the National Trust’s Bookham Common, Surrey, and the second earliest ever. 
  • A further 130 juvenile and adult water voles were introduced at Malham Tarn, following a successful reintroduction last year. Some have been chipped, and appear to be travelling quite a distance from the release site.

JULY

  • In mid-July the weather changed, a good summer deteriorated into a cool and variable one, with frequent periods of rain and no prolonged periods of sunshine. There was a north-west/south-east split, with the latter having the best of the weather.
  • A breeding colony of Purple Emperors, rarely seen in East Anglia, was discovered at Sheringham Park, Norfolk, where they haven’t been seen since for over 40 years.
  • Purple Hairstreak, White-letter Hairstreak and other butterflies, which live in the tree tops and had emerged in good numbers, were blasted away by a thunderstorm on the 18th July. 

AUGUST

  • Yet another August that lacked anticipated sunshine. The UK hasn’t had a good August for over a decade.
  • More than 500 arctic terns – and five internationally threatened little terns – fledged at Tughall Mill, Northumberland. National Trust rangers monitored the chicks over several months, 24 hours a day.

SEPTEMBER

  • A diamond spider (thanatus forminicus) which hasn’t been seen in the UK for half a century was discovered at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire.
  • The annual emergence of the common autumn cranefly (Tipula paludosa), otherwise known as daddy long legs, largely failed again.  This is an important food for birds and bats.

OCTOBER

  • Storm Ophelia affected the survival rate of several colonies of grey seals along the Welsh coast and in the South West.
  • There was a vast acorn crop, while the good spring weather also led to a bumper autumn harvest for seeds, fruits and nuts.

NOVEMBER

  • The autumn rains ensured a very good year for grassland fungi with great displays on the south Devon coast and at Tyntesfield near Bristol, where many rare waxcaps grow. 
  • The October storms brought an influx of the jellyfish-like Portuguese Man O’ War to UK beaches.
  • The nationally rare are Blushing Waxcap fungus Hygrocybe ovina was discovered on the Golden Cap estate, Dorset. 

DECEMBER

  • The feral goats and feral Soay sheep at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, were reported as being in very good condition, a result of strong grass growth.
  • Deer and other small mammals look ready for the winter due to a good autumn harvest and strong grass growth.