Every year the weather in the UK follows a unique pattern and the various highs, lows and extremes bring a combination of challenges and support for our wildlife. So how did 2015 fare?
It was a mild start to the year, but a late spring meant that migrant birds were held up by northerly winds. Spring sprung its own extreme surprise as were treated to the sunniest April since records began in 1929. However, a promising spring deteriorated into a cool, wet and windy summer, particularly disappointing during the school holidays just when every parent is wishing for endless sunny days to allow the kids to burn some energy.
The mild pattern continued and we were treated to the warmest November day on record. The unseasonable warmth led to the prolonged flowering of many summer plants and insects lingered longer. By December the mild theme was partnered with a pattern of storms and heavy rain and December was record breaking for both its warmth and rainfall. According to the MET Office, the UK mean temperature (1-29 December 2015) was a record breaking 8.0 degrees Celsius, 4.1 degrees above the long-term average. The previous record was 6.9 degrees Celsius in 1934. This means the temperatures in December 2015 were closer to those normally experienced during April or May, with a virtual complete lack of frost. Record breaking rainfall in December puts 2015 as the second wettest year on record. The flooding and destruction caused by the series of storms (Desmond, Eva and Frank) in December showed the risk of extreme weather events and brought a focus on the challenge of adapting to climate change.
So what has this pattern of extremes and records meant for our wildlife?
Let’s start with the winners. Summer 2015 saw huge swarms of barrel jellyfish, particularly around the south west of England and Wales. As sea temperatures rise with climate change and plankton blooms become bigger and last longer, there are likely to be more jellyfish, even further north. The lack of frosts in autumn meant the autumn colours were particularly beautiful in 2015, with trees holding onto their burnished leaves for much longer and we were also treated to a superb apple crop. Some sea birds fared well too. Little terns had their most productive year on Blakeney Point since 2011 whilst it was another record breaking year for breeding guillemots on the Farne Islands. Slugs and ticks have benefited from the mild winter conditions with no frosts, and these populations are still active even in early January 2016.
Sadly, there were many species that suffered in the extreme weather. Puffins had a poor breeding season on the Farne Islands when their burrows were flooded and as a result they have now been placed on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. Frogs and toads suffered the opposite problem earlier in the year. In the south of England frogs and toads faced a difficult year as many pools dried up over the spring. BBC Springwatch fans, who shared their wildlife highs and lows, noticed their absence with many finding that frogs in their garden failed to breed. Wasps had another poor year, representing a wider decline in many insect populations such as ladybirds. The relatively cool wet summer followed by a dry early autumn also posed challenges to many species of fungi.
So as we all look forward to our walking plans in 2016, spare a thought for our wildlife. Whilst weather patterns affect the footpath surfaces and accessibility, our plants and animals have much more than a bit of mud to contend with!
3 January 2016