Wildlife's fight for survival in a bitter winter

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A A A

It was only a small drama, but it encapsulated many of the downsides – and occasional upsides – which the hard winter weather presents to our wildlife.

A fox was creeping along the shore of the frozen lake, a quarter of a mile away. I was watching it at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, south-west London – the urban nature reserve run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust – and I imagined it was starving, for as I gazed on it earlier this week, with a panoramic view from the reserve's three-storey Peacock Tower hide, I could see what it was stalking: a bittern.

It had in its sights one of Britain's rarest breeding birds – and also one of the fattest. The brown striped heron-relative (a few of which winter in Barnes every year) would make a decent meal for any carnivore, and because the lake was frozen, the bittern was standing on the ice far more visible than it would be normally, hidden among the reeds.

So the fox had the bittern in its sights, for the bittern was visible. But here's the rub: so was the fox. On the snowy lake edge, it stood out a mile (or at least, the quarter of a mile to my vantage point) and it had not got to within 20 yards of its prey when, with a contemptuous flap of the wings, the bittern took off (it was then mobbed by a mad flock of carrion crows, but that's another story).

The point is, a big freeze is generally pretty bad for wildlife – for almost all creatures, food is harder to get and shelter is at a premium. But there can be advantages for some, and one of them is that predators can be much more visible in ice and snow. It's not just foxes. At Barnes this week, there was also the stunning spectacle of a peregrine falcon sitting at the frozen lake's edge, visible to every other bird.

Walking around the snow-covered, 100-acre reserve with Jamie Wyver from the management team and Richard Bullock, the resident ecologist, it became clear, looking at the frozen marsh and icebound water channels and pools, that different living things have different strategies to survive a nasty blast of winter.

With the exception of the occasional, unwelcome fox, most of the reserve's mammals – water voles, hedgehogs and bats – were in hibernation, or at least, snug in deep burrows. It was the birds which seemed to be bearing the full brunt of the freeze, since, with the sole exception of a species of nightjar found asleep in a crevice in California 60 years ago, none of the 10,000 species of birds in the world is known to hibernate.

Faced with Siberian weather, birds have only two strategies: stick it out, or flee. Many choose the latter, and from all over Europe, head south and west; indeed, the four or five bitterns present at Barnes are thought to have come from the Netherlands. Barnes's own great crested grebes have gone, perhaps to the coast.

Smaller birds suffer most in a freeze, for they lose heat and energy more quickly. The Wetland Centre has three feeding stations which are replenished, but staff rely more on their planting policy: they have planted many seed-bearing and berry-bearing plants and shrubs and trees with birds in mind. The berries have all gone now, but we watched as a mixed flock of siskins and goldfinches flew into an alder tree and began feeding.

In the end, though, casualties are unavoidable: in the last really terrible winter, of 1963, Britain lost most of its kingfishers (though they quickly bounced back). The RSPB has already issued warnings about the number of barn owls found dead, unable to hunt mice and voles under the snow.

The staff at Barnes are more concerned with smaller things, such as their overwintering warblers: chiffchaffs and Cetti's warblers. They face a hard time, for in spite of a few advantages such as spotting predators, a really severe freeze brings mainly misery.

Cold comfort for some creatures

Winter wildlife: Advantages

Predators are more visible as camouflage works less well in snowy conditions. Icy weather kills plant pests such as slugs and snails, and hopefully, the larvae of the horse chestnut leaf-miner moth, which has been attacking conker trees over much of Britain since 2002, causing them to drop their leaves early.

Mice, voles and shrews can stay alive and well under the snow for weeks.

Fish under ice are safe from land predators (such as herons).

Winter wildlife: Downsides

Frozen water means that fish-eating birds such as kingfishers cannot find food and will starve.

Frozen ground means that many birds will be unable to probe for invertebrates such as earthworms, which are their main sources of food.

In really severe cold, small birds are likely to freeze to death, especially at night. Some species such as wrens will gather together, occasionally dozens at a time, in a single nestbox, to keep warm overnight. Josephine Forster

Cold facts: The big chill by numbers

£10.5m was spent on emergency road salt in 2009-10 by local councils.

1,489,730 tonnes of road salt was ordered by councils this year, down from over 1.5m tonnes last year.

2,000 flights have been cancelled by British Airways over the past week.

£40m amount of total loss to BA from disruption caused by the weather.

282 extra deaths per day were recorded in England and Wales between 3 and 10 December.

-19.6C The temperature recorded in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, on 19 December – the lowest in Britain.

£13bn The estimated total cost to the economy of the freezing weather that began 27 days ago.

21,000 calls to AA's breakdown service were made on 22 December – an average of 900 calls an hour.

7,000 pipes burst in homes in Yorkshire, twice as many as normal.

4m letters and packages have remained undelivered.

600,000 passengers were stranded at Heathrow between 17 and 21 December as snow closed the airport.

Compiled by Josephine Forster and Joseph King

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions