Published: 22 July 2012
Wildlife and the Weather
The prolonged stretch of bad weather we have been recently experiencing in Britain has been taking its toll on the country's wildlife. Andrew McCarthy, our resident Wildlife expert, explains.

A wildlife haven. Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.
I have been interested in nature as long as I can recall.  My first obsession was bird watching at the tender age of six, when I was an avid member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists Club.  I then took up fishing which gave me the opportunity and the time to sit quietly and watch wildlife in close-up.  I am now lucky enough to be paid to study wildlife in my role as a Technical Director for a large environmental consultancy and when time permits I undertake field surveys as part of my work on development projects.  I am also a keen spare-time naturalist and although I have a particular interest in botany, most areas of natural history fascinate me. I volunteer for Natural England on their National Bat Warden Scheme, and advise householders what to do in the event they have bats in their properties, and I also am a keen wildlife photographer. The problem is finding enough time to do all these things!

Unseasonal Weather

Turning to more local matters, I am presently in the study watching the rain teem down outside, during a July which seems to be doing its level best to follow June as one of the wettest months on record!   It does not seem long ago we were listening to endless discussion in the news about droughts, dry reservoirs and hosepipe bans! This apparently strange and unseasonal weather has not just been inconvenient for those of us planning outdoor events but has been devastating for some of our more sensitive wildlife – in particular many insects.  The situation appears to have been made worse by the false dawn of an unseasonably warm and dry March, in which many species emerged early, only for populations to be devastated by one of the wettest Aprils on record. 


The Damselfly. Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.
The most obvious change in insect populations in our garden this year has been the almost complete absence of dragonflies and their often overlooked cousins, the damselflies.  These beautiful insects emerge from their aquatic larval stage during the spring and summer by climbing stems of pond vegetation, before slowly emerging as full adults and taking wing for the first time.  As a keen wildlife photographer I have often have the privilege of closely watching this extraordinary process - which can take several hours for some of our larger dragonflies, such as the stunning blue and green coloured Southern Hawker, but often the only visible sign is a remnant dry larval case called an exuviae which can be seen as a dry husk clinging to a reed stem.  Last summer I counted over sixty Southern Hawker exuviae left behind on vegetation in our pond over a two week period in June – so far this year I have counted only three and have seen very few of these powerful, spectacular fliers on the wing so far.
Four-spotted Chaser emerging. Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy.

Limestone Grasslands

Butterflies and many other insects have also been badly affected.  I was lucky enough last week to spend three days surveying habitats and insects on the nationally important limestone grasslands above Cheddar Gorge in Somerset.  This Site of Special Scientific Interest - an SSSI for short - is famous in part for its butterflies; however despite a brief break in the weather and some warmth in the sun, during a three day period I saw only very small numbers of one of our commoner butterflies, the meadow brown.  I would normally expect to see many more species and in much greater numbers at such an important wildlife site.


Whilst these and other such insects are clearly struggling in this wet and cool weather, it is quite clear that other groups are not faring as badly.  As all visitors to this site will surely know, it seems to have been an excellent year for earwigs, slugs and snails!


Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly. Photo credit: Andrew McCarthy, Devon based ecology consultant.
Reported by Andrew McCarthy  

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