The National Trust has warned that this year’s tumultuous weather is set to become the new ‘norm’ causing a range of impacts for nature if steps aren’t taken to tackle the climate and nature crises.
A warm January followed by back-to-back tree-toppling storms in February, a dry spring, a summer of record breaking temperatures and a prolonged heatwave causing severe drought, ending with December’s cold snap, has given UK wildlife a bumpy and difficult year with many species and habitats struggling to cope.
The UK is not the only country to have suffered with this year’s weather. Many countries across Europe also baked in the summer heat and wildfires, flooding, hurricanes and typhoons claimed countless lives around the world including in South Africa, Pakistan, California, Japan, The Philippines and Australia.
A new record high UK temperature of 40.3 degrees Celsius was recorded at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, on July 19 during the heatwave, helping make this the joint hottest summer on record.
Much of the country was, and still is, gripped by drought after months of low rainfall has yet to replenish groundwater, with the hot, dry conditions over the summer drying up rivers, impacting wildlife and landscapes, damaging crops, affecting livestock and fuelling wildfires, destroying land and homes of nature.
A number of wildfires on National Trust land, particularly in the South West, devastated areas of Zennor Head in Cornwall, Bolberry Down in south Devon, Baggy Point in north Devon and Studland in Dorset.
These important coastal habitats were left scorched with the fire destroying the homes of the silver blue butterfly, rare sand lizards and smooth snakes at Studland, while at Baggy Point the recent rains have created large gullies, washing soil and ash down the slopes, impacting the land’s ability to regenerate.
The lack of rainfall was devastating for the breeding of some rare species such as the natterjack toads, it disorientated species such as bats, and affected the breeding season of many species of butterflies and birds. Pollinators were also impacted due to the shorter flowering season caused by the drought.
The drought conditions also caused particular issues for National Trust gardens – with lawns drying up and plants in summer borders going over earlier than normal. Tenant farmers struggled in some areas with a lack of grass for livestock and the heat stunting the growth of arable crops. It also contributed to the ‘false’ autumn seen by much of the country with early leaf drop.
In contrast, much of the UK experienced a mast year for some nuts and berries – but this is thought to be partly due to the stress to trees caused by the drought conditions.
However, the relatively calm period of weather over the spring and summer months did result in a few success stories, particularly for this year’s apple harvest, due to the lack of late frosts and blossom lasting on the trees for longer, and the terns at Long Nanny in Northumberland had a successful breeding season. In contrasting fortunes, a catastrophic weather event of gales, torrential rains and tidal surges washed away the nests of the multiple tern colonies on Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland at a critical point in the breeding cycle.
The mild autumn and the arrival of rain has also resulted in a good showing of many varieties of fungi, with some gardens seeing signs of spring with rhododendrons and delphiniums blooming due to the warm temperatures.
Keith Jones, Climate Change Adviser at the National Trust said: “There is no escaping that this year’s weather has been challenging for nature. Drought, high temperatures, back-to-back storms, unseasonal heat, the recent cold snap, and floods means nature, like us, is having to cope with a new litany of weather extremes.
“It is a stark illustration of the sort of difficulties many of our species will face if we don’t do more to mitigate rising temperatures and helping nature’s survival.
“Weather experts predict that the future will see more torrential downpours, along with very dry and hot summers, with 2022 setting a benchmark for what a ‘typical’ year for weather could be like. But the ‘new normal’ is also likely to result in even more extreme weather events than now.
“We’re going to experience more floods, droughts, heatwaves, extreme storms and wildfires – and they will go from bad to worse, breaking records with ever alarming frequency if we don’t limit our carbon emissions.”
Commenting on the impact of this year’s weather on our wildlife and landscapes, Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust said: “This year nature has sounded the alarm as it has struggled to cope with the challenging weather conditions which have confused wildlife and impacted habitats.
“The extraordinary weather with extreme drought and unseasonably warm temperatures put enormous stress on our wildlife. Some habitats like wetlands and grasslands completely dried out in some areas, impacting all those species that make them their home. Many species suffered, with notable reductions in the number of flying insects such as butterflies and bumblebees as flowering plants withered and died.
“On top of this our seabird and wintering birds have also had to deal with the impact of disease. Avian influenza, has had a particularly devastating impact on our precious seabird colonies on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, with thousands of birds dying.
“With more diseases impacting wildlife and the changing weather patterns, there is no doubting the scale of the challenges we face, and how much our nature needs our helping hand.
“It just goes to show how the People’s Plan for Nature, which we are supporting here at the National Trust, is so badly needed. This will put people power at the heart of solutions to the nature crisis.”
Despite the tough year for UK nature, there have been encouraging signs at places where conservation efforts are already underway to build resilience into landscapes, with wildlife better able to cope.
Ben explains: “We aim to both improve the condition and extent of our wildlife habitat so that nature can thrive and move to more hospitable areas when the climate changes for the worse.
“For example where we have reintroduced beavers at our Holnicote Estate in Somerset their enclosure has maintained higher water levels keeping the woodland wet and lush which in turn supports a richer woodland ecosystem. This is because beavers are great at engineering ecosystems and transforming the catchments where they have been introduced.
“At Purbeck National Nature Reserve in Dorset our work with our partners to create a whole landscape rich in wildlife means that we expect it to recover more quickly from a devastating fire this year. This is because species can recolonise the burnt areas.
“Also in the Peak District our restoration work has allowed water levels to rise, helping the re-establishment of sphagnum mosses, and these same areas retained water and protected the precious underlying peat during the summer drought.”
There will also be some species that will adapt to changes in our climate better than others. Ben added: “Wildlife that utilise a broad range of habitats, so called ‘generalist’ species, such as robins, wood pigeons or common blue butterflies that we may see in our gardens, are better able to respond to the pressures of extreme weather as there is more space to support them.
“However, those species that have more demanding requirements are especially vulnerable as they are typically more restricted by specific needs. For example cirl buntings, a farmland bird, which require seeds in the winter and invertebrates in the summer, or marsh fritillary butterfly that require wet grasslands with good populations of plants like devil’s-bit scabious that the caterpillars feed on. These are the species which currently face the biggest challenges and need our help to joint up habitats and to make landscapes more resilient to change.”
Nature – winners, losers and mixed findings for 2022
Many National Trust estates including Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire and Brockhampton in Herefordshire have had really good crops of apples this year – despite the summer heatwave. This was largely down to calm, dry spring weather with the absence of any late frosts which meant blossom was largely unaffected, and plenty of pollinators flying in the warm, spring weather.
National Trust gardening teams were in many instances pleasantly surprised by this year’s harvest, although many did note that crops did ripen up to three weeks earlier than normal.
Seeds and nuts
Many areas of the country have seen an abundance of seeds and nuts such as acorns, beech masts, rowan berries and elderberries including the east of England, North and Northern Ireland.
This phenomenon, known as a mast year, typically happens every four to five years but this year’s has been unusual, with trees fruiting earlier than normal.
Stuart Banks, Countryside manager on the Blickling estate in Norfolk said: “I’ve never seen anything like it before. This year we had a warm, mild spring, and there were lots of pollinating insects flying around to pollinate all the flowers. The stress the trees were then put under by the extreme heat and drought caused trees to ‘flood’ the market – the abundance of seeds is a means of ensuring their genes survive.
“It takes a lot of energy for a tree to produce its seeds and it will take a couple of years now for the trees to recover.”
The bumper crop was good news for the forest’s wildlife including squirrels, jays, badgers and mice who will have plenty of food throughout the winter.
The hot, dry summer and unusually warm October had little impact on this year’s autumn colour – and still provided the ‘wow factor’. Although there was some loss of leaves with the ‘false’ autumn in August and September, it was still a very colourful autumn with leaves and colour retained on trees for longer due to the lack of frost.
After 20 years of choughs breeding in Cornwall, 2022 was another record breaking year with 25 pairs breeding successfully on National Trust land, bringing the current population in Cornwall to around 200 birds.
Choughs now live all around the coast of Cornwall as their range continues to grow.
Due to this year’s weather, some birds were spotted moving in land to search for food, which is likely to have been due to the ground being so hard around the coastal strip where they typically feed on earthworms, beetles, ants and other insects and invertebrates using their specially designed bill to dig into the soil.
One of the most heart-breaking and most significant impacts this year on wildlife has been the impact of bird flu on the UK’s seabird colonies, with thousands of seabirds dying in the seabird colonies on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland in June. The virus ripped through the colonies due to the vast numbers of cliff nesting birds packed onto the cliff ledges which had returned for the breeding season.
Cooler temperatures allow viruses to live longer and this strain of avian influenza is extremely pathogenic, meaning that it killed almost all infected birds.
Rangers cleared away the dead carcasses of kittiwakes, gulls, shags and puffins in efforts to try to slow the spread.
The final number of dead birds collected will be confirmed next month, but it is anticipated to be in the region of 6,000.
Gwen Potter, Countryside Manager on the Northumberland Coast commented: “After several decades of dedicated effort by our rangers to support our internationally important populations of seabirds, it has been devastating to witness their suffering this year.
“We know the numbers of bird carcasses collected are only the tip of the iceberg with many thousands of birds falling into the sea.
“We won’t understand the full picture of the impact of the virus on our seabirds until next summer when we can assess what numbers return to breed. We hope that those that survived this year have some reprieve as they disperse across the oceans during the winter and may develop some immunity to this devastating disease. In the meantime it is vital that we reduce the pressure on our wildlife so they have a fighting chance to survive.”
Bats struggled due to the heat. In July, the team at Wallington in Northumberland found young bats dehydrated and disorientated with the heat that were still new to flying. The rangers took care of the bats they found, rehydrating them with water using tiny pipettes before placing them in a cooler, dark place where they could rest and recover and fly to re-join their colony at dusk.
Pipistrelle bats at Crom in Northern Ireland also experienced difficulties with an increase in numbers needing to be rescued or needing some level of care. Numbers were also down by approximately 300 on the figures of 732 recorded in 2021.
This year has been a mixed year for wildflowers. Early flowering species such as cuckooflower and cowslips got off to a good start whilst later flowering species such as white campion or yellow rattle did less well in the drought conditions. Many plants flowered and set seed early including bramble, especially in the east of the country, with knock on impacts for those species, such as redwings and bumblebees that require this sugar rich fruit to see them through the autumn.
With continued mild conditions in September when the rains finally returned, there was some late regeneration.
Rivers, lakes and ponds
High temperatures, the prolonged heatwave and low rainfall levels meant some National Trust lakes and streams dried up over the summer months impacting fish and other wildlife.
At Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire the 15 metre long pool almost vanished and the lake at Charlecote in Warwickshire dried up almost completely in August.
Precious chalk rivers – of which 85% are located in England – are particularly vulnerable to climate change and drier summers, made worse by over abstraction which means they are drying up more often as a result of human activity which causes issues for the wildlife that depend on them for their survival such as white-clawed crayfish or southern damselfly.
The stream at Hughenden in Buckinghamshire dried up. The font stream at Mottisfont dried up at the beginning of August, and remained dry until November. Water levels at Little Sea Lake, an internationally significant freshwater lake in Studland sand dunes in Purbeck dropped to a record low. As a result there was an algal bloom (caused by low water levels and higher temperatures), water levels finally started to recover in October. The immediate impact of this is unknown as yet, but is expected to have a knock on effect for dragonflies.
Natterjack toads at Formby are being hugely impacted by climate change and the extreme, prolonged periods of hot weather.
Work is underway to try to help this rare toad population with the creation of five new natterjack toad breeding pools, removing invasive plants from their breeding area and rejuvenating two existing pools. The aim is to provide a network of different pools to give the toads lots of options for breeding in various weather conditions to give them the best possible chance of success.
Isabelle Spall, Project Officer at Formby said: “Natterjacks require very specific conditions to be able to breed, which is why they are so rare. They need a series of stepping-stones – ie clusters of pools, across the dunes to allow them to travel across the network of dune slacks so they can breed. Climate change plays a huge part in determining whether they will have a successful breeding season. They need pools shallow enough for lay their spawn and so that they warm up and dry out by the end of the summer (this deters predators from making the pools into their home too), but deep enough so they don’t dry out before the natterjacks tadpoles have grown into toadlets and made their way into the dunes.
“Despite seeing lots of spawn and tadpoles in the spring, there were unfortunately no sightings of toadlets here or across the Sefton coast as the slacks all dried up before they could complete their metamorphosis.”
The National Trust has huge ambitions to increase tree cover on its land and is aiming to establish 20 million trees on its land by 2030. However, the drought and high levels of heat had huge impacts on some of the planting projects from last winter with up to 90% lost in some small parcels of land on the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire (average losses around 50%) , an approximate 50% survival rate at the Buscot and Coleshill Estate in Oxfordshire, but, there were better successes in Wales where new trees had an 80% survival rate due to higher levels of rain and moisture in the soil.
Luke Barley, Trees and Woodlands Adviser at the National Trust said: “These young trees haven’t had the chance to fully establish, and therefore unfortunately don’t have the root system or mass to help them survive during periods of drought.
“While it is normal to lose a small proportion of tree saplings in any given planting scheme, losing this many across so many sites has a real impact on our efforts to increase woodland cover. This impacts on our efforts to deliver Nature Based Solutions let alone targets for UK tree planting but we will learn from these past 12 months and adapt our plans accordingly.
“For instance, where we have used mulch or kept grass long around the saplings to help hold in moisture when planting trees, our saplings have fared much better, and we’ll be taking these points of learning forwards.
“We’re also finding that trees which have developed from natural colonisation are doing much better. This is because when trees self-seed they establish good root systems from germination – so have more built-in resilience in times of challenging conditions.
Commenting on the heat’s impact on older trees, Luke continued: “It’s very likely we won’t understand the full impact of this summer’s temperatures until next spring when their ability to burst into new life may be hampered if they didn’t manage to store enough sugars in their roots over the summer period. Bud burst is a very energy sapping process as they move from a period of dormancy into new life.
“Finally, some of the impacts of a severe drought like this will only become apparent over many years – even decades. Successive drought events in a changing climate will compound the stresses our trees face, including their susceptibility to tree disease which makes species diversification part of the answer to climate impacts.”
This year’s weather patterns caused a variety of issues for farmers in many parts of the country. The drought particularly impacted the amount and quality of pasture, which meant many farmers were forced to feed livestock over the summer months.
David Hassall, farm manager at the National Trust’s 1,050 hectare estate (2,595 acre) farm at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire where 700 hectares (1,730 acres) is farmed in hand, said: “This is the first time in living memory that we have had to feed cattle grazing the parkland this summer. The grass just didn’t grow due to the extremely long dry spell and drought. Feeding the cattle over the summer costs not just extra money, but leaves us short for the winter and meant a lot of extra work.
“As well as poor levels of grass for grazing, our hay has also been of very low quality. Due to the poor weather it bolted and went to seed early. And all our ponds, ditches and woodlands were also bone dry.
“Thankfully our wheat harvest and yields were really good and with less moisture in the air we didn’t have to spend money on drying it out this year.”
However, in contrast farmers in upland sites in Snowdonia in north Wales and in the Lake District had the best summer for 30 years where the impacts of the dry summer were less extreme. Short periods of rain and sunshine resulted in good quality crops and grass growing throughout the season.
Many species of butterfly had a poor year most likely due to the impact of the heatwave and drought on food sources over the peak summer period this saw some usually flower rich sites browned and withered with much fewer butterflies on the wing. But, the Trust’s conservation action does have positive impacts. For instance, the large blue butterfly on Rodborough Commons had another successful year after being reintroduced in 2019, as did our conservation for the silver-studded blue butterfly in Dorset and silver washed fritillary at Sheringham Park.
While warm summers can be good for some butterfly species and there are records of some species such as clouded yellow and Queen of Spain fritillary extended their range northwards from continental Europe, what is most critical is large, quality habitat areas providing a range of micro habitats to support species through periods of extreme weather.
Dragonflies generally are benefitting from warmer weather with species such as Emperor Dragonfly moving northwards as the climate changes. But it isn’t always good news. For example the black darter – the UK’s smallest resident dragonfly – is a distinctive species whose numbers have been declining nationally for the past 50 years, although parts of Sussex have remained a stronghold including the National Trust’s Black Down Estate. A species associated with acid pools and mires on heathland, this year’s monitoring by the Estate’s volunteers and ranger team failed to find any sign of them – and the team fear that the summer was just too dry for the black darter larvae to survive.
Some National Trust gardens struggled in record temperatures over the summer, with plants and lawns scorched in the heat. The stream dried up at Hidcote in Gloucestershire as did the rill in the rill garden at Coleton Fishacre in Devon and the font at Mottisfont in Hampshire. Gardeners at Hidcote found that the flowering season was shortened due to heat stress, and borders looked dry and summer flowering finished earlier. But many gardens did have a second flush of flowering when the rains did finally arrive.
Due to the mild temperatures in September and October many gardens have also seen longer and unseasonal flowering.
Delphiniums at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk did a full bloom again – with seven foot tall spires, plus roses continued to bloom. At Sheffield Park in Sussex rhododendrons flowered sporadically during October and new growth was spotted on some trees. Winter flowering cherries also flowered for the earliest time in the last seven years. And on the Castlefield Viaduct in Manchester plants which had been held back by the drought have been flowering extending the season and bringing welcome pops of colour above the city.
Heather on the lowland heath site of Dunwich Heath struggled to flower due to the prolonged dry spell and heat. This is in contrast to the Peak District, where the dry spring in combination with a wetter April enabled the heather to grow well in May, and an absence of strong winds prevented the seed pods to be thrown off and allowed the flowers to remain in their stunning colours for longer over the summer.
Both Arctic terns and little terns had a successful year at Long Nanny on the Northumberland coast and thankfully escaped the worst impacts of avian influenza. Fifty-six of the rare, Little Tern fledged, and their success was down to the relatively calm and settled weather conditions and no high spring tides. The rangers also worked hard to keep away predators from the nesting birds. A total of 1,200 Arctic tern nests were counted and it’s estimated at least 800 terns fledged.
In contrast however, extreme weather at the end of June resulted in the failure across multiple tern colonies on Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. South-easterly gales with associated tidal surges, and periods of torrential rain washed away nests. Weather and tidal events, impacting the low lying island colonies, is the single biggest long-term issue for the Strangford colonies.
It’s been a strange year for fungi as the long, dry summer pushed back fruiting by at least six weeks. Once the rains finally came it still took time for the rain to soak in and for the moisture to start moving through the soil and for the various species to appear.
But, good numbers have been recorded in particular in West Yorkshire and Dyffryn and Erddig in Wales.
Steve Hindle, Grassland Project Officer in West Yorkshire said: “When we have this kind of delay to the season there is often a mass fruiting of fungi which means that people see them, and assume it’s been a really good year. But, in truth it hasn’t been a good year overall, but there have been some winners.
“The conditions seem to have favoured some species which are rarely recorded such as the date waxcap which has fruited well in the south of England and jubilee waxcap in the South Pennines. These species have always been there – but there’s something about this year’s conditions that particularly suited them. And, if we experience long, dry summers more frequently we may see these species more often.”