Rain brings banquet for badgers, but owls starve

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The Independent Online
It is not just holidaymakers in Britain who have suffered from a miserable wet summer. The rain in June and the first two weeks of July reduced the food supply for birds of prey, chilled their chicks and flooded their nests, badly affecting the breeding season for barn owls, merlins, kestrels and buzzards.

Swallows and swifts are going hungry because the heavy rain has dampened down the midges they thrive upon; blue tits and great tits are suffering as caterpillars, their main food, are washed off leaves and treetops. But it is not all bad news. Blackbirds, song thrushes and starlings, which thrive on earth- worms and soft soil, are enjoying the rain and expected to record high population numbers.

"When the weather is a little extreme, some species will do better than others," said Professor Ian Newton, senior ornithologist at the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology. Summer rain means happy hedgehogs, says Sue Atkinson of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals. "The weather is quite good for hedgehogs and badgers. The soil is unseasonally soft so they can get at earthworms and insects and there is plenty of fallen fruit for them."

The news is not so good for kestrels, merlins and buzzards, whose nests are at risk from downpours because they are often built in exposed places, says Prof Newton. Barn owls have been badly hit, as their fluffy feathers easily become waterlogged, which inhibits their ability to fly. "Their main prey are voles who seeks shelter in wet weather and are less easy to spot." Returning to the nest with saturated feathers, the barn owl risks giving eggs or new-born chicks a chill.

Heavy storms at the start of July are now thought to have killed some 150,000 kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins along the north-east coast.

Bees have also struggled in the wet and cold weather. Bill Smith, who runs Exeter Bee Supplies in Okehampton, Devon, said cold weather had deterred bees from pollinating flowers and gathering nectar in return. "The bees have not been able to pollinate hawthorns. These will not produce berries this winter and so birds that spend winter in Britain will have one less food source."

But among all the ups and downs, one bird keeps plodding along: the British robin. "The robin seems to be pretty impervious to changes in weather," said Mike Everett of the RSPB.