Drought 'may hit at-risk wildlife'

Threatened wildlife such as water voles could be hit by the continuing dry weather across parts of the country, the Wildlife Trusts warned today.

This year has seen an unusually dry spring, and despite some recent rainfall the dry weather is set to continue across much of the country into June, leaving rivers, streams, ponds and lakes all low on water in some areas.

According to Suffolk Wildlife Trust's water for wildlife adviser Penny Hemphill, falling water levels increase the risk of water voles being eaten by predators as they have to travel further down exposed banks to the water.

And if ditches or small streams dry out altogether the voles, immortalised by Ratty in The Wind In The Willows, will be forced to move to new sites.

Cows and sheep grazing what little grass there is on river banks will also force them to move to find cover.

The knock-on effects of these problems tend to be seen the following year, Ms Hemphill said.

"In a very dry year after a normal year, you will get a good population and they will attempt to breed, but the following year the population crashes and it takes two or three years for the population to recover."

She said the dry weather added extra pressure on the voles, which have suffered massive declines in recent decades due to loss of habitat and predation by invasive mink, but which have recently seen their fortunes turn around in some places as a result of conservation efforts to help them.

"It's just losing that optimal habitat that's putting pressure on the population. It's an added stress on water vole populations," she said.

Elsewhere in the country, Northumberland Wildlife Trust said ponds were much lower than usual, posing a problem for great-crested newts whose eggs, laid in submerged vegetation, are being left high and dry.

And Staffordshire Wildlife Trust said wet grasslands were drying up too quickly, affecting wading birds such as lapwings as the habitat attracts fewer insects, depriving chicks of food.

But the dry spell has benefited some wildlife, with Durham Wildlife Trust reporting that the exposed muddy regions round ponds at Rainton Meadows, Wearside, have favoured wading birds such as the little ringed plover and are attracting the rare Temminck's stint.

And Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust said it had seen very successful nesting by coots and great crested grebes, while dragonflies and damselflies had been seen in good numbers and earlier than usual.

The Wildlife Trusts said there was a need for more long-term monitoring of species such as water voles to see how they cope with dry periods, which could become more common as the climate changes.

The organisation also said there was a need for more extensive and robust wetland areas to support wildlife, and a reduction in the amount of water taken from rivers and groundwater by increasing water efficiency and cutting consumption.