Wildlife left reeling by fires and storms – the 'new climate normal', warns the National Trust

Press release
Cliff fall on the south Dorset coast in april
Published : 23 Dec 2021 Last update : 24 Dec 2021

Landscapes and wildlife across the UK are increasingly suffering the impacts of extreme weather events and natural disasters, says the National Trust.

Although the year’s weather was uneventful at times, a handful of events and some unseasonal conditions caused devastation to important landscapes, coastline, and resulted in various ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ for our wildlife. 

Warmer, wetter winters are resulting in diseases such as ash dieback taking hold and causing significant loss of trees, impacting landscapes and homes for nature.

The dry March and even drier April saw wildfires take hold at two significant landscapes cared for by the conservation charity – the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland and Marsden Moor in Yorkshire, devastating 200 hectares and 520 hectares (two square miles) of moorland respectively.  

Both areas lost a diverse range of plants, and declining bird species were affected, such as skylark, meadow pipit and snipe (Mourne Mountains) and curlew, golden plover and short-eared owl (Marsden Moor) and other wildlife such as Irish hare (Mourne Mountains) and mountain hare (Marsden) as well as leaving important peat soils scorched and destroyed.  

On the Dorset coast, a substantial 300m cliff fall in April - the largest for 60 years on this stretch of coastline – was caused by prolonged periods of dry weather, rain and erosion by the sea over several years, undermining the stability of the cliff changing the shape of the coastline forever; serving as a reminder of the dynamic nature of our coastal habitats.

The late autumn was bought to an abrupt end last month as Storm Arwen ripped through the north of the country causing widespread devastation, toppling hundreds of irreplaceable trees and plants at Bodnant garden in Wales, and thousands in the Lake District. At Wallington in Northumberland, where winds reached 98mph, over half of the 250-year-old oak and beech trees were also uprooted.   

Temperature-wise, a high of 32.2 degrees Celsius was recorded at Heathrow airport in July and a low of -23 degrees Celsius was recorded in Braemer in Aberdeenshire in February.  This summer is expected to be within the top ten warmest on record, evidence of the long-term trend of rising temperatures.
 
Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust says: “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.  

“These dramatic incidents reflect what is going on elsewhere in the world, with extreme temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius in California resulting in the state’s largest wildfire burning 390,000 hectares of land and extreme rainfall in China of 201.9mm in an hour resulting in devastating flash floods.

“These extreme events are putting even more pressure on Britain's wildlife, which is already in trouble with more than half of species in decline and 15 per cent of wildlife species under threat of extinction.  Our nature is part of what makes the UK unique and we must all play our part to protect it.  

“The scale of the challenge we face is huge, but there is much we can do to heal climate harm. Isolated or small populations are the most at risk from climate impacts. Our conservation work protects and restores wildlife in our precious landscapes to help nature literally weather the storms. By conserving nature and improving habitats we can support larger populations that are better able to respond to the drivers of change and help nature’s survival.”

Wildlife winners and losers in 2021
Wildflowers
Carpets of pyramidal orchids were seen across Rodborough Common in Gloucestershire in June and on the Golden Cap estate in Dorset bee orchids flowered profusely largely due to the very dry April and exceptionally warm June.  The cold, wet May favoured the orchids which grow from tubers, with some growing to over 300mm tall.

Autumn Lady's-tresses, the latest of our orchids to flower, had an exceptional year. Its spires of white flowers appeared in the thousands at some grasslands and sand dunes in southern England and Wales.

Butterflies
In contrast, this year saw the lowest number of butterflies recorded in the Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count, with 60 per cent of species in lower numbers than in 2020.

On National Trust land this year, teams noticed butterflies emerging later due to the very cool spring with numbers lower than normal at Blakeney, Holnicote and the New Forest – although the range of species still seemed good.  This was in stark contrast to 2020 when the early and warm spring resulted in early emergence, although 2020 ended up being an average year for many species due to the dull and wet summer.

Numbers of the endangered Large blue were down at both sites cared for by the Trust in Somerset and Gloucestershire, where the species was introduced in 2019 as part of the Large blue project.
  
Last year the population at Rodbourgh Common near Stroud was affected by drought while this year numbers were impacted by the cool and chilly spring with butterflies not emerging until June.  However, with new sightings across the common, the butterfly does appear to be extending its range which is an encouraging sign because more local populations across the area will reduce the risk of them becoming locally extinct and that the habitat restoration work is having positive results.

Another highlight included the first sighting of the mysterious Purple Emperor at Anglesey Abbey and further sightings at Sheringham Park, where it seems to have established itself since 2017.

Birds
The chilly April and May’s rain and gales led to a very poor nesting season for many species of birds at some places in the National Trust‘s care.  

At Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland, a pair of barn owls abandoned their breeding site[9] and the lapwings at Blakeney Freshes were put off by the cold ground conditions. 

It was another topsy turvy year for terns at National Trust sites, with different species of these characterful and elegant seabirds either doing well or badly depending on their location and particular circumstances.

For example, Arctic tern numbers rebounded at Long Nanny in Northumberland thanks in part to restarting the 24-hour ranger surveillance of the nest sites post lockdown to help ward off predators, after two years of the birds struggling firstly with disease in 2019 and then with nests flooded out by storms and high tides in 2020.    

38 individual Little Terns arrived in May, but the high tides at the end of the month flooded the area they use for nesting on the spit causing them to abandon the site.  

At Blakeney Point in Norfolk the Sandwich and Common terns did well thanks to plentiful food and a lack of disturbance from people and dogs reflecting the role we can all play in nature’s recovery.  

In contrast, despite a good start to the season and a peak little tern nest count, adult birds abandoned their nests scared off by the presence of a short-eared owl and a roost of common gulls.  

At Cemlyn Nature Reserve on Anglesey, Sandwich terns and both common and Arctic terns had a good season, with the second highest nest count since 1982.

Common and Arctic terns also did well at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland.  However, in contrast there is increasing concern for the future of the Lough’s Sandwich terns which were down 14 per cent on last year.   

Ben commented: “Terns are some of the UK’s seabirds which literally live on the edge – not just in terms of their coastal habitats  being squeezed by rising sea levels, but also at particular risk from human disturbance, predators and storm events at crunch times during the breeding season.

“We suspect the reason for the recent declines of certain species is down to cold weather and more frequent heavy rain falling in the summer at the vital incubation and early post-hatch stage.  Predation could also be a factor.  This trend could continue if we get more frequent heavy rain in the summer as a result of climate change.  

“Another significant factor affecting the Sandwich tern numbers at Strangford Lough is that the reduced Black-headed Gull population meaning there are fewer opportunities for the two to nest alongside one another. The feisty gulls help fend off predators, but they also steal food that the terns bring back for their chicks.  So despite it being a difficult relationship for the terns, overall they seem to do better when there are Black-headed Gulls around.” 

In late summer, many starving Guillemots and Razorbills were found dead or dying along the east coast.  Researchers are trying to discover what caused this mass mortality, which affected birds in countries all around the North Sea, given the perilous state of many seabirds. 

Blossom and harvest
The record number of late frosts in April and into late May in some parts of the country damaged apple blossom and the subsequent apple harvest particularly in the northern parts of England and Northern Ireland.  

At Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire there were almost daily frosts throughout April and into May, with temperatures dipping to -12 degrees Celsius.  Despite the blossom trying to bloom, it never peaked as it normally would which resulted in the worst apple crop for 20 years.

Beaver birth 
There was good news for the beavers released on the Holnicote Estate in Exmoor in January last year – with the birth of their first kit in June the kit was captured on camera for the first time with both of its parents in October.

Fungi
This year has been a bumper year for grassland fungi, especially waxcaps due to a warm, damp autumn with little or no frost, with some rare or unusual species found in new places.

Fungi are changing their behaviour as the climate changes. Some species are fruiting earlier and others later, and some autumn species have started to appear in spring too.

Waxcaps are one of a suite of fungi that indicate healthy grasslands. Together with earth-tongues, coral fungi, and pink-gills, they thrive in old permanent grasslands that have not been ploughed or fertilised. Much of their habitat has been lost since World War II. In Shropshire National Trust rangers were pleased to find 17 species of these fungi in one meadow, showing that it is an important site for nature.

At Hardcastle Crags in Yorkshire, there has been an abundance of coral fungi and some exciting new discoveries including Waisted waxcap Hygrocybe substrangulata, Blushing waxcap Neohygrocybe ovina and Shadowed waxcap Hygrocybe phaeococcinea.

At Lambert’s Castle in Dorset, three new species of fungus were recorded for the first time; the drumstick truffleclub Elaphocordyceps capitata, which feeds on truffles, and Hortiboletus engelii.  

In Herefordshire the team discovered a striking alien species called Devil’s Fingers (also known as Octopus Stinkhorn) which was introduced to Europe accidentally from Australia or New Zealand around 1920.
 
The Vyne in Hampshire recorded a new species, a new type of Ceriporia which is yet to be named to add to the 600 types of fungi already noted.

Grey seals
The grey seal colonies cared for by the National Trust are expecting an increase in pup numbers again this year continuing the upward trend seen since counts began largely thanks to the lack of predators and plentiful food.  This is in spite of Storm Arwen at the end of November, with rangers reporting that the colonies appear to have survived relatively unscathed.

Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast welcomed a record number of grey seals. One or two seals are often seen out on the beach, but over 200 were spotted and stayed for several days which could mean they might be looking to establish a new colony due to displacement or needing new space somewhere safe and quiet.

Autumn colour
Due to the very settled and warm September, there were fears that the dry conditions would cause some trees to shed their parched leaves before even a hint of autumn arrived. 
 
However, with just enough rain to ensure the trees weren’t left too stressed, autumn colour finally kicked in later in October with a spectacular array of colours including a range of reds thanks to the build-up of sugars in leaves likely given an extra boost due to the September sunshine.  The lack of frosts and stormy weather ensured a great show of colour well into November, when Storm Arwen bought it to an abrupt end.

John Deakin, Head of Trees and Woodland comments: “Climate change could affect seasonal autumn colour in ways in which we are still to fully understand.  But leaves could end up turning or dropping earlier with warmer temperatures and less rainfall.  An increase in storms at all times of year will also stress trees and leaves are likely to fall quickly in autumn.”

Another threat is the growing numbers of tree diseases, some of which are being exacerbated by climate change.  Trees which are stressed due to drought, for example, are more susceptible to disease, and warmer winter temperatures mean that some diseases are not as likely to be killed off by cold weather.  

This year the National Trust is having to fell another 30,000 trees due to ash dieback Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which is killing ash trees across the country, as well as felling trees affected by sudden larch death, Phytophthora ramorum.

Record poor year for acorns in the south (following last year’s mast year) but a bumper year for berries

There seems to be another north, south divide when it comes to acorns with a good crop in the north, but hardly any produced in the south of the country, in contrast to 2020 which was declared a ‘mast year’.  Oak flowers need dry warm weather to successfully produce quality acorns, which reflects the generally good conditions experienced over the summer months in the north of the country where there has been a good year for acorns.  

In contrast it appears to have been a mast year for berries across most of the country.

John continued: “After a mast year, trees literally have a rest to recover from the significant energy required to produce so many seeds, demonstrating how clever trees are.

“However, this could affect the wildlife that rely on them in the winter, particularly small mammals like yellow-necked mice, wood mice and also jays which will have a tough winter without the acorns.  

“It’s normal for trees like oak and beech to produce large amounts of seed together in particular years – probably as a strategy to overwhelm those animals that eat acorns to ensure some seeds germinate – and then to produce fewer seeds in subsequent years.

“In contrast it appears to have been another very good year for berries – particularly rowan, hawthorn and holly berries and migrant birds such as redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds are making the most of the fruit.”

Other significant first time sightings at National Trust places
At the Vyne in Hampshire two spider species were spotted for the first time.  A nationally scarce Angular Orbweaver, Araneus angulatus, was found in wet woodland in June which was unusual as it is typically confined to the southern coast of England.  A female wasp spider, Argiope bruennichi, was also recorded for the first time in September.

The critically endangered spider Zora silvestris was also discovered at Clumber Park confirming that the heathland here is one of the charity’s top spider sites.

The endangered Norfolk Hawker dragonfly appeared at the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire.  Formerly restricted in Britain to the Norfolk Broads, it has been spreading into Cambridgeshire over the last few years.

Southern migrant hawker dragonfly recorded at two areas on the Golden Cap Estate in Dorset for the first time.  This dragonfly started breeding in Britain in 2010.  An Italian Tree-cricket was also found at West Bexington, recorded ‘singing’ for the first time.

A small red-eyed damselfly was seen at Craven Arms, Wenlock Edge in Shropshire. This insect started colonising Britain in the 1990s.  It is spreading north in response to climate change as are many other species of damselfly and dragonfly.

A Brown-banded Carder bee Bombus humilis was found at Tredegar House in south Wales.  This is the rarest of the UK’s three ginger bumblebees.  The south coast of Wales is one of its remaining strongholds.  

In August, a rare migrant from eastern Europe, the barred warbler was found in the dune scrub at Sandilands.

Commenting on the various new sightings and their importance, Ben added: “The ups and down of the wildlife in our care is a major driver of the Trust’s work and as this year has again shown, the work that our teams are doing to protect some of our most treasured landscapes is vital for nature’s recovery and for people’s enjoyment.”

He continued: “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.

”What is absolutely clear is that we need to tackle both the climate and nature crises as they are integrally linked and we need to make urgent progress with both.”

For more information or to make a donation towards our nature conservation work such as tree planting or peatland restoration visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk 

Picture editor’s notes
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