THERE was a time when the seasons seemed to be clearly defined by reliable weather conditions.
However, as the sight of daffodils blooming in Yorkshire has shown, this no longer appears to be the case.
Concerns are now rife for how the kind of unseasonal weather experienced this year is affecting native wildlife, and a new end of year report published today by The National Trust shows that it has been a decidedly mixed year for countryside species.
There have been some causes for celebration in the natural world, with barn owls being spotted for the first time in over 40 years at Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales and, while nationally butterflies are suffering major declines, a purple hairstreak butterfly was recorded for the first time at Hardcastle Crags in West Yorkshire.
But conservationists are dreading the potential impact of a prolonged period of turbulent weather early in the new year - with isolated pockets of wildlife at greatest risk of being wiped out.
Stephen Morley, wildlife and countryside adviser for the National Trust in the north, said: “The concern is that with wildlife levels low and declining in many groups in the countryside, any adverse weather will have adverse effect on remaining wildlife populations.
“Where we have smaller, scattered populations of wildlife species, they may get knocked out altogether by severe weather.
“We have a lot of small, isolated wildlife reserves in Yorkshire so the impact of adverse weather can be greater there because species and wildlife are concentrated in these places, so it is vitally important our wildlife becomes better distributed across our landscapes.
“The chances are high for catastrophic impacts where we have small populations of declining wildlife subjected to extreme weather.”
The National Trust is working with partners such as tenant farmers to manage land sympathetically in support of biodiversity and Mr Morley said gardens too could be managed to work harder for threatened wildlife.
“Gardens are a great reserve for biodiversity and there are lots people can do with them to support wildlife by adding structure - this is one of the most important things. Have a complete mix of lawn, shrubbery, trees and, ideally, a pond. This structure attracts a wide range of birds and other animals. Another thing that’s important is not to be too tidy. Leave your perennials standing over the winter as this gives birds and bugs a source of food. Also, grow a wide range of different flowers because that attracts a wide range of species. Lavender and herbs are popular at the moment and they are good for bumblebees.”
The resurgence of the barn owl was a particular triumph, with the species having suffered major declines as a consequence of sustained harsh weather in previous years.
Spotted again after an absence of decades at Malham Tarn, barn owls have seemingly flourished this year because of improved conditions for hunting. A reduction in grazing pressure and the planting of young woodland has helped support good numbers of their favoured prey, the field vole. Barn owls were are also now regularly spotted at Ravenscar on the Yorkshire Coast and at Brimham Rocks, near Harrogate.