Spring flowers in autumn, birdsong in winter: what a freak year for nature

When Stephen Moss was a boy, the seasons followed predictable patterns

When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 1970s, we had what my nan used to call “proper weather”. Snow in winter, showers in spring, sun (or at least, sunny intervals) in summer and gales in autumn. Britain’s weather may have been changeable by the day, but the seasons were seemingly set in stone, with a reassuringly predictable regularity.

That certainly suited the country’s fauna and flora. Wild animals and plants, and by extension their habitats, evolved to cope with short-term unpredictability and long-term stability. If change did occur, it happened slowly, over decades or centuries; rather than rapidly, in a single year.

Now, according to the latest annual report on weather and wildlife from the National Trust, published last week, all that has changed, with the weather in 2017 more topsy-turvy than ever. One of the warmest years on record – globally as well as in the UK – made the four seasons blur into one. This led to what the trust describes as “a freak year for nature”.

Mountain ringlet
Mountain ringlet: Our toughest butterfly, well adapted to life on the high tops of Cumbria and the Scottish Highlands, is threatened by the rapid growth of vegetation in its mountain home, as well as wetter summers. Photograph: Oliver Smart/Alamy

During the last 12 months, the strange and volatile weather has had serious consequences for wildlife. Spring flowers bloomed in autumn, birds sang in the middle of winter and our seas witnessed an invasion of thousands of portuguese man o’ war, which can give a painful – occasionally even fatal – sting. Autumnal storms hit the coastlines, while mild winter weather at both the start and the end of the year allowed many pests and parasites to run riot. These included the dreaded ash dieback disease, caused by a fungus that thrives in these warmer temperatures.

The trust’s veteran nature guru Matthew Oates, who has been documenting the changes in Britain’s wildlife for more than half a century, has never seen anything like it. “Although nature has never been stable, the pace of change is now really quickening. I’m particularly worried about mild winters and damp summers generating excess growth of coarse grasses and other thuggish vegetation – and squeezing out the finer plants and myriad insects that need bare ground.”

I’m worried too. I haven’t been watching wildlife as long as Oates, but I have noticed the many changes that have occurred since my own childhood. Then, only the robin regularly sang in the autumn and winter months; yet on a fine day last winter I heard no fewer than seven different species of bird in full spring song.

Birds use a number of different cues to begin their breeding cycle, including the gradual increase in daylight (which of course is not affected by the weather), but they also respond to rises in temperature. Starting to breed early is unlikely to pay off: it takes only one cold snap to make food hard to find, so the chicks starve in the nest. Hibernating hedgehogs are now emerging far too early – sometimes on mild days in January or February. Once they have woken up, they are unlikely to cope when the weather turns cold again. Likewise, butterflies such as the small tortoiseshell and peacock, which spend the winter hidden away in my woodshed, are appearing far earlier than they used to, as are bumblebees and many other flying insects. Early springs are horribly risky for these vulnerable creatures.

Alpine blue-sow thistle
Alpine blue-sow thistle: One of our tallest and most showy alpine plants, this rare flower is threatened by climate change in the Cairngorms, where it grows on sheltered mountain ledges. Photograph: Alamy

Winter 2016-17 was not all that unusual, though there were a few extended periods of frost or snow, especially in the south. Spring then came early to many parts of Britain, with wild daffodils in bloom as early as February in the south-west. Elder and dog rose – plants we usually see in bloom in June – came into flower in April, two months earlier than expected. Yet they also carried on flowering far longer than normal, with blossoms out well into the autumn.

Some insects also fared badly – we may not shed a tear over the lack of wasps this spring and summer, but they are a crucial part of our balanced ecosystems, and their absence should be a cause for concern, not celebration.

As Oates points out, for a while it looked as if we would enjoy the best summer for many years. “Then, the schools broke up, the clouds assembled and the UK endured one of the wettest Augusts on record.”

We have always experienced autumn gales, but now that we have given each major event a name, they really do seem to be happening more frequently. In October, Storm Ophelia swept across the Atlantic and battered our western coasts. This brought the arrival of the portuguese man o’ war, which washed up in their thousands on beaches from Cumbria to Sussex. Grey seal colonies on the west coasts were hit badly, with newborn pups suffering very high mortality; fortunately, those at more sheltered east coast sites did very well.

The autumn’s good news was yet another huge crop of berries, including sloes and hawthorns; but blackberries appeared so early this summer that they were virtually over by the time autumn had begun. Both the high yield and the early appearance of fruit and berries was the result of the fine, early spring.

Diamond spider
Diamond spider: Not seen in the UK for half a century, one was discovered at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire. Photograph: National Trust

Yet in continental Europe, the seed, nut and berry crop was very poor, bringing a bonus for British birders with an invasion of the rare hawfinch. Plenty of rain in September (the wettest since 2008) meant that 2017 was also a bumper autumn for fungi – especially waxcaps, which came out in force on the Malham estate in Yorkshire.

As this mixed bag of reports shows, the weird weather – and by extension generally warmer seasons – is not all bad news for wildlife. A warming climate does create opportunities for species to extend their range northwards in Britain or, for European species able to fly across the Channel, to colonise the UK for the first time.

As well as the many species of waterbird now breeding on my home patch on the Somerset Levels – including great white and cattle egrets, little bittern and night heron – many insects are also making the leap across the water from France.

One hot, sunny day in July, I visited Longham Lakes, a series of disused gravel pits in Dorset now converted into a thriving nature reserve. There, I spotted two rare dragonflies – lesser emperor and red-veined darter – which are on the verge of becoming permanent colonists here. Others have already beaten them to it: the willow emerald damselfly, which until a decade ago was virtually unknown in Britain, is now breeding across much of south-eastern England, while its cousin the small red-eyed damselfly has reached as far north as the Humber river.

Purple hairstreak
Purple hairstreak: This small butterfly, which lives in oak trees, had a very good breeding season after fine weather in June. Photograph: Matthew Oates/National Trust

But in the longer term, the increasingly unpredictable weather, topsy-turvy seasons and overall warming trend are very bad news for many species; especially those that have evolved to survive in a specialised habitat.

These rapid and unprecedented changes in our weather and climate have major implications for nature conservation, too. “Business as usual” is no longer a viable strategy. The people and organisations that manage our nature reserves – and those who look after the wider countryside – must try to predict what might happen in the next few years and then manage habitats to make them as resilient as possible.

In the conclusion to his final report on the effects of the year’s weather on our wildlife, Oates strikes a warning note, but also a hopeful one.

“Certain species are good at adapting, or moving around, 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 also to thrive. 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 National Trust places each year.”

Stephen Moss’s latest book is The Robin: a Biography (Square Peg)


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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