Every day of late, a merry band of Long-tailed Tits has come wending its way through my garden.

I love how bonded they are, making constant quiet 'tip....tip....tip' calls to stay in contact with each other. It jumps to a more insistent 'si-si-si' if they are feeling a little nervous or can't quite see each other, and rises yet again to a bold, rippling 'sirrut' if they really are getting their knickers in a twist. To lose track of each other on their travels is clearly not an outcome any of them wants to contemplate - they must stay together.

What I also love is how their little troupe picks up hitch-hikers along the way. Long-tailed Tits are what is known as a 'carrier' species, with tits, crests and Treecreepers all willing to latch on as these pretty Pied Pipers pass through.

Then one day this week, my Long-tailed Tits found themselves an unusual hanger on. It was this:

It's a Chiffchaff.

A common bird in summer, most Chiffchaffs head for the Med in winter, but increasing if still small numbers are now staying the winter. For an insect-eater like this, to try to survive the UK winter would have been a fatal choice in years gone by. Indeed, here in Sussex by 1960 there had been just 14 records in December. These days, however, at a prime insect-filled glamorous location (such as a sewage farm!), you can almost get that number in one place.

It made me think about how our garden wildlife is changing right under our noses.

For example, this year my Purple Toadflax plants were dotted with these beauties:

They are the caterpillar of the Toadflax Brocade moth. It was first recorded breeding in the UK in the 1950s down here on the south coast, but had always remained a rare moth. However, since 2000, it has boomed, reaching Cambridgeshire, South Wales, and now widespread in London.

So I grow lots of the Toadflax, in part for the many Common Carder Bees that visit the flowers in their droves, and in part as a happy munching ground for these guys.

On the flip side, I've yet to record one of these in my new garden (so the photo comes from ten years ago in my prevous garden),

It is the Garden Tiger moth, once incredibly common, as revealed by the fact that its caterpillar has a colloquial name, the Woolly Bear, because it was so well known. However, its numbers have absolutely plummeted in recent years.

However, look at this next photo. What a moth!

This is the Scarlet Tiger, not photographed in my garden but just down the lane from my mum's house in Worcestershire in my one mid-lockdown socially-distanced visit in June for her birthday. This moth was once restricted to the south west of England and Wales, but it has spread rapidly up into the Midlands.

It often flies in the late afternoon and evening, and the photo is of a female, pumping out pheromones to say she's ready to mate, which had lured in not only this male fluttering excitedly in front of her but another half dozen or so fluttering in the grass around, all wowed and wooed by her scent. Plant some comfrey and this could be a moth to make it into your garden in years to come.

And then there's this, the Willow Emerald damselfly:

This is a damselfly that naturally colonised the south east of the UK in 2009, coming over from continental Europe. The photo is one of several I found in a Sussex garden this summer, and it is now widespread and still expanding its range across England. In its wake are now other new arrivals such as the Southern Migrant Hawker and Lesser Emperor dragonflies and Southern Emerald Damselfly, while the Small Red-eyed Damselfly first arrived in 1999 and has spread across almost the whole of England and Wales.

These changes are thought to be in large part due to the changing climate. For the Garden Tiger, our winters are now too wet and mild; for many of the insects now pushing their way north through the UK, the milder weather is suiting them and they are better able to survive.

You only have to look at how many fewer species of bee or butterfly there are in Scotland or Northern Ireland compared to southern England to realise what an impact our former climate had on the distribution of much of our wildlife, but now dramatic changes are happening in all of our lifetimes.

We could so easily get distracted into thinking that climate change is a great thing, as we get excited about all the new arrivals. But we must treat the topsy-turvy upheaval of nature as a warning sign. Yes, some wildlife is managing to adjust, and that's a good thing. But if you're a plant or a creature without wings, then shifting your range in only a few years is not so easy. 

Arresting the progress of man-made climate change is clearly vital, but helping wildlife adapt to the change that is already in the system is looking like it might be essential, too.

Anonymous
  • Yes, helping nature adapt to the trajectory of climate change is essential, alongside reducing our greenhouse gas pollution to bend down this trajectory of changing weather to manageable levels. RSPB nature reserves have been adapting innovatively for several years - we need to spread this forward looking approach across our landscapes.