As the wettest, weirdest summer I've seen in 35 years as a naturalist draws to an end, what will it mean for wildlife long-term? For most insects and other invertebrates, it has been a poor season (though those which like it damp have thrived).
Butterflies had a bad time of it – most prefer warm and sunny conditions for flying, feeding and finding mates. Weeks of almost daily heavy rain was a literal wash-out for insects which feed on flowers – the nectar was washed away and pollen was waterlogged. Short-lived species such as hoverflies were hit hardest. Where meadows flooded, huge numbers of voles and shrews may have drowned, so there could be local food shortages for the kestrels and barn owls which depend on them.
For most species, a poor summer or a flood is a local difficulty, a blip, not a species-threatening catastrophe. But a few may have suffered more seriously. Rare animals, which have retreated to a scatter of small sites, are particularly vulnerable. The swallowtail butterfly, in the Norfolk Broads, may have been hit by flooding while it was a caterpillar, so may be very scarce even in its strongholds next year. The water vole has disappeared from many areas because of habitat loss, and the depredations of American mink – if isolated pockets of water voles drowned in the floods, there may be no others within water vole-travelling distance to recolonise, so they may be gone for good.
Our wildlife has been with us for, maybe, 12,000 years, so has seen its share of miserable summers. But this is probably the worst since we built our motorways and industrialised our agriculture. Before, species could move freely and recolonise pockets of habitat damaged by floods and storms. Now, the patchwork of the British countryside presents more of a challenge. If this summer of extreme events represents the future, we will need to improve the countryside, enlarge our nature reserves, and link habitat patches together if wildlife is going to thrive in the next 50 years.
Brian Eversham is conservation director at the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants