Rare species suffer as floods wash away young

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The Independent Online

Britain's wildlife has suffered severely alongside the human victims of our record wet summer and its floods. Some of our best-loved creatures, including the endangered grey partridge, have lost their young and their habitat has been destroyed.

From wading birds and water voles to the spectacular swallowtail butterfly, the wettest summer since records began has had devastating consequences.

The grey partridge, a medium-sized gamebird with a distinct orange face, has been hit particularly hard, according to the Game Conservancy Trust.

"The wet summer has been a total wash-out for young partridge chicks struggling for survival and urgent conservation action needs to be taken by all those with a responsibility for managing the British countryside," said Nick Sotherton, head of research at the trust. The grey partridge had already suffered an 86 per cent decline in the past 30 years and was on the brink of extinction in many areas.

Even foreign species have fallen victim. The purple heron, which breeds in southern Europe, was thought to be making a first British nesting attempt at Minsmere RSPB reserve in Suffolk. But a flash flood which swept away the nests of several bitterns is thought to have foiled the purple herons' breeding attempt.

"Purple herons are fantastic birds, one of the more charismatic members of the heron family, and certainly one of the most beautiful," said the RSPB's Graham Madge. "This would have been a new species nesting in Britain and we are extremely disappointed."

The Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve at Coombe Hill in the Severn Vale supports many pairs of ground-nesting birds such as lapwings, redshanks and skylarks. But all young birds which were not able to fly before the floods arrived are believed to have perished.

Elsewhere in Gloucestershire, the chicks of many "low scrub nesters", such as chiffchaffs, willow warblers, sedge warblers and reed buntings, have drowned. The adults can escape the rising waters in the higher regions of hedgerows, but unfledged young will almost certainly have been washed away.

Other flood victims will be small mammals such as voles and mice, and this will affect the survival of predators such as the barn owl, which rely on them for food.

In the Vale of Berkeley, wardens from the trust expect the nesting burrows of water voles - Britain's rarest mammal - will have been inundated. Adults were probably able to swim to higher ground, but probably without their young.

Habitats are suffering too. The Gloucestershire trust reports: "There could also be disastrous consequences for habitats such as hay meadows, as the hay crop will be uncuttable. The annual hay cut allows things to grow later in the season, so failure now means wild flowers that normally grow up through in the late summer could have their growth 'strangled' by the mass of rotting uncut hay grass. This in turn will have a knock-on effect for the insects that rely on wild flowers for nectar."

One of the most significant effects of the floods is the damage to Britain's only breeding population of the swallowtail butterfly, in the Norfolk Broads. The flooding has reduced growth of the insects' specialised food plant, milk parsley, and the number of caterpillars has crashed. The swallowtail overwinters as a pupa, and this means that next spring far fewer adult swallowtail butterflies may appear.

There have been few winners. But at Saltfleetby and Theddlethorpe Dunes in Lincolnshire, natterjack toads have produced more strings of spawn than in the past 30 years.

Animals under threat

* GREY PARTRIDGE:

Found throughout England and southern Scotland, the grey partridge is a ground bird and vulnerable in heavy floods. Already considered endangered its numbers have fallen by 86 per cent in the last 30 years.

* WATER VOLE

Often mistaken for a common rat, the water vole is the UK's rarest mammal. Their river-bank homes are especially vulnerable . They were once widespread but have suffered a significant decline over the past few decades.

* PURPLE HERON

Slightly smaller than the UK's grey heron, the purple heron is usually found throughout Africa and Asia. Some populations are migrational and head for Europe in the summer and small numbers have recently chosen the UK for breeding.

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