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Summer days… In Winter!?

Whilst the warm February weather might seem like a nice change from the cold winter days, the high temperatures across the UK last month may have had a more sinister effect on our wildlife. Species of insects, amphibians, birds and mammals are all affected differently by the temperature changing so often and between extremes. These heatwaves are believed to be caused by climate change and the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. So what does this mean for our wildlife?

Most species of insects and amphibians hibernate or become fairly inactive over the winter period. When the temperature rises above a certain level, this brings an end to their hibernation, and signals them to become more active again. This is because it is usually a sign that spring is here. This year, that was not the case. After a heatwave lasting about a week, the temperature fell back to the usual winter weather having a negative impact on these species that emerged early. So far I have already seen two smooth newts and a ladybird this year, both of which don’t usually emerge until later on.

This may not seem like a huge problem, but in nature, things tend to have a domino effect. If insects emerge early, they may die if the temperatures drop again which means a lot of birds and mammals will struggle for food. These insect-eating animals will most likely be prey for other animals such as birds of prey and predatory mammals like stoats or foxes. If there are no insects, the small birds and mammals will suffer, meaning the larger birds and mammals will suffer too. This could cause a huge drop in species numbers all over the UK.

Animals aren’t the only ones suffering. I’ve seen hundreds of daffodils out this year which is a rare sight for winter. Plants and flowers that bud early will have to slow down their growth if the temperatures drop and this could mean they aren’t able to grow properly when the weather gets warmer. Herbivores may lack nutrition they get from buds and fruits and we could see a drop in a lot of plant species numbers too.

Bees are very important pollinators and are equally at risk to the extreme weather that climate change seems to be bringing. Not everyone realises how important bees are for us, but they help pollinate crops of fruit and vegetables that we buy from supermarkets to eat. With bee numbers already declining due to spread of diseases, use of pesticides and loss of habitats it is massively important that climate change doesn’t begin contributing to the decrease of bee numbers as well.

A not so obvious effect of this warm weather is the effect it has on animals that effectively ‘change colour’ in winter. Hares, stoats and ptarmigans are some of the few animals that develop a new coat or feathers seasonally in the UK. Having a white coat in an area with no snow makes you stand out very clearly to predators and prey making animals that haven’t ‘caught up’ with the weather, especially vulnerable. Having seen a stoat in ermine (with its winter coat) in February this year, against the dark colour of a forest floor, my eyes have been opened to this issue. The stoat couldn’t have been easier to see. Whilst this is more of a long term effect of climate change, it is already an obvious issue and because it is happening at such a fast rate, animals that have evolved to change coat colour to aid their survival are at a disadvantage as evolution can’t happen at the speed that the Earth is warming.

We can see how many different species of plants and animals are being affected by the warm weather coming earlier in the year, and also how it could affect us. Scientists believe that climate change is the main cause of this warmer and more extreme weather. We need to work together to combat climate change and save our planet and wildlife!

Blog written by: Xanthe Walker


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