As Britons cleared snow from paths, the irony of clocks going forward at the start of British Summer Time today was not lost. While most of Britain has reason to curse the coldest March in 50 years, there are other inhabitants for whom the inclement weather this weekend has more serious consequences. Experts fear the impact on wildlife could be far reaching. Migrant birds are few and far between; breeding is delayed, and it is thought some of our favourite species – including the swallow, chiffchaff and sand martin, might produce only half their expected broods this year. "We are nearing the tipping point," said Paul Stancliffe of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). "It could end up being a very bad breeding season."
It also looks as if it will be a hard year for the already dwindling hedgehog population: experts fear many will not wake up from hibernation. There is little sign of the cold-blooded creatures, such as the great-crested newt and toad, that usually fill our ponds in spring, and frogs are losing their spawn on icy ponds.
The Independent on Sunday asked wildlife experts how the cold will affect the animal kingdom.
The cold winter can affect animals' hibernation patterns, making them wake more or less frequently during the wintry months, and exhausting energy supplies. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society thinks some will not have the "reserves" needed to see them through hibernation; plus there will be less food, such as beetles, slugs, caterpillars and worms, to feed on when they do. A rescue centre in Scotland experienced a 10 per cent increase in the numbers of hedgehogs rescued in the past 12 months, while a centre in Gloucestershire had a 50 per cent increase – up to 1,200 hedgehogs in 12 months. Animals such as badgers will struggle to find food, such as earthworms, for cubs born early, while cold can delay the breeding of water voles. More displaced seal pups than usual are also being washed up on the Northumberland coast, according to the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, in a vulnerable position, far away from home.
Migrant birds such as the chiffchaff, sand martin, willow warbler, blackcap and the little ringed plover are arriving late to Britain. There are five times fewer chiffchaffs than one would expect at this time of year, and the swallow has yet to arrive in significant numbers. If the bad weather continues over the next few weeks as predicted, this will delay the main thrust of migration, according to the BTO. Some birds may have only one brood. Early resident birds such as the blackbird, robin and song thrush are more likely to find it hard to find food to feed their young. Barn owls suffer "extremely badly" in elongated winters, according to the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, as they fail to find prey. During the last cold winter in 2010, the trust recorded 50 mortalities in its county. Puffins are already being affected; 400 have been found dead along the east coast of England and Scotland because of storms at sea, according to the RSPB.
Cold-blooded animals, such as the great-crested newt, are "nowhere" to be seen, according to experts. The Wildlife Trusts' surveyors are struggling to find the animals, which are still in hibernation and not out in the ponds as they should be at this time of year. Breeding will be delayed, leading to the risk that the animal will face more predators. Toads are in less abundance than usual for this time of year. Frogs are laying spawn, which is being frozen over by ice and killed.