How has the longest winter in Britain affected our wildlife?

Chris Packham talks about sniffing out the first signs of Spring...

Spring officially starts on 21 March. So when it finally limped in this year – in late April – many people feared that months of icy winds and lingering snow would have inflicted a terrible toll on our wildlife. Not so Chris Packham. While the final verdict won’t be apparent until the new series of Springwatch, he believes the natural world has weathered the cold weather with more fortitude than us humans.


“This is just a cycle of weather – not necessarily climate – and the vast majority of species that we deal with have long ago evolved to deal with weather. Some are perfectly capable of taking a huge collapse in population, particularly smaller birds like wrens and goldcrests, which die in harsh winters. But part and parcel of evolutionary biology is they’re designed to cope with this and immediately bounce back as soon as conditions change.”

Those whose job it is to collect data on animal numbers say it’s too early to identify precisely who’s been hardest hit by the late arrival of spring, but there is already evidence of starving barn owls and stranded swallows. Packham views it in the round. “There are things that like it cold and like the pouring rain and they will have benefited. Our job is to unravel the winners and losers.”

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One sure-fire winner is Springwatch itself – nature is bursting forth precisely in sync with the BBC’s annual showcase. Yes, Packham acknowl- edges, in previous years spring had already sprung by the time cameras started whirring on its traditional bank holiday Monday launch.

He recalls 2011, the first year at Ynys-hir, the RSPB reserve in mid-Wales that the Springwatch crew returns to for the third and final time this series: “Most of the birds that we were looking at were either on their second brood, which they never invest as much in. Or they were failed breeders, so they’ve failed and re-nested. Or they were birds that had arrived too late to get a territory; they were breeding for the first time, but they were maybe young birds or old birds.

“As a consequence of that, the chick mortality in the nest was really high, and by the third week of broadcasting it was like a week of dying baby birds. Now there’s a good scientific reason for all of this to happen, but we would much rather celebrate some success amid the failure!”

When it comes to the losers, Packham is cautious about drawing conclusions from a single cycle of weather. Nor does he think we should be pointing the finger solely at the slate-grey skies. “The problem comes if we’ve made life difficult for creatures in terms of habitat, persecution or pollution. If we’ve added to the stress of weather, their populations are not so resilient.”

He cites butterflies as an example. The sodden summer of 2012 proved disastrous for the majority of Britain’s 50 or so species: conservationists observed more than 90 per cent decline in the population of black hairstreaks, and a nearly 40 per cent decline in more common species such as the tortoiseshell.

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“The problem is that some of those species were already rare. Not because of weather but because we’d destroyed their habitat. So if the species becomes extinct in one area due to an extreme weather event like last year’s terrible summer, the distance between sites is so great that it won’t get re-colonised – and then the species can go into a very serious decline.”

Though in its ninth year, Springwatch shows no such sign of decline. The objective remains the same: “If we can get far more people to engage with that wildlife, and to develop an affinity for it, then they will help us to guard it,” says Packham. “That is not a message that’s spread throughout all of our programmes, but it’s certainly behind all of our thoughts.”

That’s one of the reasons why there’s a new member of the family this year: Nick Baker, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed guest in previous series. Baker is to present an afternoon edition (week- days at 3pm) that will take us behind the scenes and show us how we can engage with the flora and fauna in our own back gardens.

“Often we don’t have time to do that and it can be quite frustrating,” says Packham. “Nick will be there to lead viewers that step further and say: ‘You’ve seen it on the main programme. How do you do it yourself? You do it like this’.”

As for the future, Packham has high hopes. “New technology means we can track birds down to 30 metres. Now if that technology becomes more affordable, it would be really nice to start maybe with a swallow in South Africa and follow it all the way back to Britain.

“It’s inconceivable for us that these little things fly across the Sahara Desert. But if we were there in a microlight trying to keep up with them, it would really drive it home.” 

Spring’s Losers


Many puffins, shags, razorbills and guillemots washed up dead on beaches this March, as a result of cold weather and strong onshore winds affecting their ability to feed. RSPB Scotland described the puffin mortality rate as the worst in nearly 50 years.


Last year’s poor summer made insects scarce, so adult bats may have found it difficult to eat enough to build up their fat reserves before hibernating. The Bat Conservation Trust also reports that the bats seem to be moving to their summer roosts later this year as a result of the cold.


A high number of starving and dead barn owls has been recorded in Norfolk, Suffolk and the South West by the Barn Owl Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology. One likely cause is cold weather reducing the activity of the small mammals they prey on.

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The British Trust for Ornithology says early migrants such as swallows, house martins and chiffchaffs did arrive on time, but numbers dropped off quickly afterwards because insect prey was low. It’s not known if they moved back across the Channel or perished. Of the four satellite-tagged cuckoos the BTO monitors, all arrived virtually on time, but one stayed for just one day before flying back to France! Even though the other three stayed, they will have been under stress — few trees had sprouted the leaves that support their caterpillar food source.


The British Beekeepers Association says the cold and rain will prevent bees from becoming active. A delay in flowering will also hit population numbers. A late spring means honey reserves will run out before hibernation ends and so bee mortality will increase.

So will summer sizzle?

Veteran weatherman Bill Giles says: “May has been cool and showery, but should become drier and warmer because of the westerlies that are coming through. June should be slightly warmer than normal. July should be warm as well, but wet; the higher temperatures may well set off heavy showers and thunderstorms.”

Springwatch is on Bank Holiday Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 8:00pm, Wednesday 7:30pm, BBC2


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