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Drought will cause a 'wildlife tragedy', says Environment Agency

Exceptional dry spell threatens species from trees to tadpoles
  • @mjpmccarthy

Much of Britain's wildlife, from dragonflies to water voles, faces a difficult summer because of the drought, the Environment Agency has warned.

Click here to see the 'The species at risk' graphic

Water levels in rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands are so low – and getting lower – that a whole series of species may be unable to breed or may die if the rain stays away, the agency says.

For example, it says, the traditional summer scene of dragonflies skimming over a glistening stream could be a rare sight in parts of England this year. Other species that will be severely affected if the drought continues include freshwater fish, great crested newts and wading birds such as curlews and lapwings.

Some parts of the country have seen the driest 18 months since records began, and in drought-affected areas it is likely that some streams, ponds and shallow lakes will be completely dry before aquatic insects such as dragonflies are fully formed, and the insects will consequently perish.

Newly hatched tadpoles from toads, frogs and the protected great crested newts face a similar fate, while the agency has already seen a number of fish deaths this year caused by dry weather, and is stepping up river monitoring and increasing its supplies of water-aeration and fish-rescue equipment in order to respond quickly to reports of distressed fish.

Wading birds will also suffer as suitable wetland breeding sites dry up. Waders such as the snipe, redshank, lapwing, curlew and black-tailed godwit all need moist soils to probe with their long bills to extract food such as worms. These species have declined rapidly in much of England in recent decades and this spring drought could be the final straw at some of the smaller breeding sites.

Falling water levels in ditches and streams will leave water-vole burrows exposed to predators such as stoats and weasels. Long dry spells and low soil-moisture levels can also lead to the death of some trees – especially beech and birch – and the fruits of trees and shrubs are likely to be smaller in size. Forest fires also become an increasing concern.

"The amount of water that we use at home and in our businesses has a direct effect on the amount of water available in our rivers and for wildlife," said Alastair Driver, the Environment Agency's national conservation manager. "We would urge all water users – including consumers, businesses and farmers – to use water wisely to help protect our valuable natural environment."

The agency will announce new drought-related measures this week to help to protect nationally important wildlife sites, including provisions to extend the licence season, make use of unused licensed water, or allowing higher pumping rates to capture water during any rainfall periods that occur.

Last week, the Environment Agency published its drought-prospects report, which warned that the drought could spread as far north as East Yorkshire and as far west as the Hampshire-Wiltshire border, if the dry weather continues this spring. The whole of the South-east and East Anglia are already in drought.