Another thought provoking and very timely guest blog from our neighbour Andrew on the last few months and the challenge its giving everyone who manages land for both wildlife and farming in the local area, everyone is having a tough time especially with the added issues of Covid 19 and the stress that puts upon everyone including people who are working in the countryside. Thank you very much Andrew.
There’s a famous old ditty about the weather that many people will know:
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We must weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not.
Also famously, the English love to talk about the weather and (even though they often say “mustn’t grumble”) love to grumble about it. Well, the past year has seen some extremes that justify quite a bit of grumbling, especially in relation to the amount of rainfall, or the lack of it.
But let’s start with a feature of the lockdown period that has cheered a lot of people up: the amount of sunshine. Provisional Met Office figures show that England had its sunniest April in a series that began in 1929, with the Blacktoft Sands area receiving about 50% more sunshine than the 1981-2010 average. That has made life a little easier for people, at least if they have a garden to get into, even if it’s been frustrating to be unable to enjoy the wider countryside, RSPB reserves and all.
That sunshine not surprisingly boosted solar power generation, with the peak UK production of 9.68 GW on 20th April setting a new record. While some larger solar farm proposals, as for wind farms, do pose serious risks for wildlife, the general trend towards renewable energy must be a good thing for the natural world.
Solar panels catching the sun
However… That sunshine has been accompanied by higher than average temperatures and it has been very, very dry. Pete said water levels on the Blacktoft Sands lagoons have been falling rapidly – Xerox has lost 4 cm in just a fortnight.
And that the reserves grazing marsh dried out long ago and is now bone dry and starting to crack in places
But let’s go back a bit and look at the twelve months running up to today. This time last year, things were pretty much average, though the early spring had been warm. Everything changed from 22nd September, when it started to rain, and rain, and rain. Between then and the end of November, there were 13 days with 10 mm or more rainfall (for older readers, 25.4 mm = one inch). That compares to just three days over the same period in 2018.
The chart below shows rainfall over the last twelve months, compared to the averages over the previous 16 years. The data come from a weather station on farmland being managed by the RSPB and just over 3 km from the reserve reception centre, so the reserve figures would be very similar.
The autumn rains gave way to something like normal conditions in late November, but by then the ground was saturated. Many local farmers were unable to get crops into the ground, and some that did lost them because of water-logging. And then it started again in February!
Flooded arable land, 15th November
The run of data at the local weather station is not particularly long, but the totals in all those four months were records. Here are the 2019/20 rainfall figures (mm) compared to the maxima during the previous 16 years.
High water levels, 25th November
All the rain wasn’t good for the arable farmers, but it certainly made good conditions for wildfowl and waders, with ditches full to the brim and spreading out on to pastures that we’re managing for those birds. And thank goodness we were able to catch a lot of that water, because the rain stopped at the end of February. That was almost literally true, and the next three months have proved to be as dry as it gets around here. Rainfall totals in each of March, April and May have been well below average and, even if they weren’t record lows individually, they were in combination.
This year, the March-May rainfall total was 41 mm, while the previous minimum during 2013-2019 was 50 mm in 2011. For April-May, the contrast is greater with the 2020 total being 21 mm and the longer term minimum being 41 mm, again in 2011.
Everything quickly started to get drier. Farmers rushed to get crops in, first into soggy ground and then into something resembling concrete. The sunny conditions, the breeze and warmer temperatures were soon combining to lower water levels, and to suck it out of the upper layers of soil where germination takes place. The first part of the winter had actually been cooler than the recent average, but the January-May mean temperature has been more than 1°C warmer than the 2005-2019 average – and that is quite a lot.
Spring wheat – but it’s a thin crop, 30th May
And May was warm, wasn’t it? The local station recorded 14 days when the thermometer reached 20°C or more. Typically, only six such days occur, and the previous record here during 2003-2019 was 12 in 2018. Retaining high water levels is one of the difficulties of managing land for wildlife around here. We hope in the longer term that innovative schemes devised by RSPB and others will make it possible to keep land damper even in dry years like this, but it’s quite a challenge in these conditions.
Where has the water gone? 29th May
The picture below shows a grass crop sown on 20th April. Further along the field, a few blades are emerging but most is still completely bare. While it’s managed for nature conservation, this remains a commercial farm and conditions like this make it difficult to achieve the balance between the two aims. For wildlife, we are trying to maintain high water levels and a patchwork of crops and habitats, but we need the farm to produce a return or it becomes too expensive to accomplish.
Grass was sown here on 20th April (photo on 30th May)
More widely, these dry conditions pose serious dangers for habitats. It’s not just the management difficulties and the effects on food availability, predation levels and so on, but the risk of fire as we’ve seen this spring in the large Tay reedbeds in Scotland (tidal, like Blacktoft Sands) and closer to home at Hatfield Moors where huge areas have been devastated. Everyone needs to take extreme care as they return to such sensitive areas.
An ecological disaster for what is one of the Humberheads top reserves for many rare and conservation priority species with over 500ha burnt and fires still burning in the peat.
More than ever we need to protect our reserves and the wildlife!
Hatfield Moors fires
The weather information I’ve described here comes from an automatic weather station close to the Trent outside the village of Garthorpe. This one records temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, rainfall, and wind speed and direction. It is possible to add other sensors, such as sunshine recorders. If you look at websites such as Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com/wundermap) and go to the map, you’ll find quite a few similar recording stations in this area. There are plenty of weather nerds out there, just as obsessive as birders, some of them!
With the start of June, there seems to be cooler weather around the corner, and perhaps even some rain. We shall see … but we mustn’t grumble. Anyway, remembering this blog is for the RSPB, to finish with here’s a picture from Pete of a recent highlight on the reserve.
Some birds seem to be enjoying the nice weather with our best cuckoo year for many a year - the question is, is it the warm weather or is it no people that has tempted them into onto the reserve this year? There's a few other species doing well but no doubt that others like the thrushes are having a tough time, its never easy being a Warden, I think we are the worst for grumbling about the weather! (Pete)
Hatfield Moors picture – this is a still from a drone video at
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