A “false autumn” due to the heat wave and prolonged drought causes trees to lose their leaves, nuts to drop and berries to ripen early, which can leave animals with less to feed on heading into winter.
Wildlife experts have said the extreme weather recorded this summer will significantly increase pressure on vulnerable species and has already had a devastating impact on some ecosystems, particularly where freshwater habitats have dried up.
The effects of extreme weather, made 10 times more likely by the human-driven climate crisis, are being felt up the food chain, with a huge range of species now at risk.
RSPB’s Becca Smith said The independent that while it “may take a few months or years to really understand the impact” of the drought, the false autumn is “a really visible way for people to see what’s happening”.
She said: “It is a stress response from plants where the heat means they lose their leaves and acorns drop and blackberries ripen early.
“Nuts and berries in trees and hedgerows are traditional food for birds in the autumn, but they are available now so birds are flocking to them, meaning later in the autumn and winter there will potentially be a shortage of food.”
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While the full extent of the record heat and drought on Britain’s wildlife is yet to be ascertained, experts have said the scale of this year’s extreme weather means we are now “in uncharted territory”.
The toll is already evident in some areas.
This was told by the Wildlife Trust’s director of climate action, Kathryn Brown OBE The independent that what the 46 local foundations across the country had seen so far was “incredibly worrying”.
She said: “Most of the really severe impacts we’re seeing are on fresh water. Ponds have completely dried up in places across the country, as far north as Northumberland.
“Of course, all the invertebrate life in those ponds dies—unless it can leave it. And all the animal life that can’t fly off or crawl away will be dead.
“Freshwater beetles, fish like sea trout, frogs and dragonflies have really suffered, as well as all the freshwater wildlife, all the animals that feed on them. We’ve seen birds like house martins and barn swallows that feed on flying insects have been affected.”
She added that there had been a “huge influx” of hedgehogs brought to rescue centers numbering “in the hundreds” as they have been unable to access water and terrestrial invertebrates due to the rock-hard ground .
Speaking about the impact on trees, Ms Brown pointed out that species including birch had lost their leaves due to stress caused by a lack of water. It had caused some of the trees to regrow their leaves, resulting in “a false spring”.
“The timing is completely chaotic,” she said. “There will be consequences for wildlife finding food, but also, will these trees be able to survive the winter and be able to rest themselves for next spring?
“It’s incredibly worrying because we just don’t know what the effects will be. We’re really in uncharted territory.”
The drought has highlighted how humans exploit natural resources and how vulnerable we are when water supplies we take for granted run out.
As well as hose bans, the drought has worsened water quality in Britain’s polluted streams, resulting in register fish deathsthe farmers report significant crop losseswhile environmental experts warn at the same time that the demands of agriculture are putting pressure on water availability.
This was told by Paul De Ornellas, WWF’s Chief Wildlife Adviser The independent the current conditions experienced across the country “are having a serious impact on wildlife and are putting many species under significant stress”.
He said: “With many of our rivers and streams running low or dry, existing pressures from mining and pollution are magnified and wildlife such as fish, invertebrates and amphibians are being lost.”
“Pollinators such as bumblebees, already threatened by habitat loss driven by the intensification of agriculture, are also struggling to adapt to warmer temperatures.”
The late summer temperatures can also prompt some bird species to push for another brood of chicks, but a lack of food heading into winter can have fatal consequences, the RSPB’s Ms Smith said.
She said people had called the RSPB over the summer to report that house martin nests, made of mud, had dried up so much during the heatwave that they had fallen down. The species is already redlistedso the weather is “exacerbating a pre-existing problem as they are already in decline”.
A bushfire has caused “particularly devastating” habitat loss, particularly affecting the willow tit – Britain’s most endangered resident bird, Smith said.
“They are quite picky about their habitat so they need specialist restoration of it as they have lost more than half of the habitat they still had in the 1970s.”
A bushfire this summer destroyed 16 hectares of restored habitat in West Yorkshire, which “has set us back about 30 years in terms of restoration work” for this species.
“It’s devastating,” she said.
One of the reasons why Britain’s wildlife is so vulnerable to extreme weather is the scale of the long-term damage inflicted on the environment in almost every part of the country.
While plenty of other countries have experienced more severe heatwaves than Britain in recent years, a relentless campaign of human mistreatment of the environment in Britain means wildlife has already been in crisis here for centuries. The record temperatures are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the pressures the natural world is under.
Birds, insects, mammals, aquatic life, plants, fungi and all the deep and intricate relationships they weave between each other have been pushed out, cut up and abandoned to the edge of our island.
The spread of agriculture has turned heathlands, forests and wetlands into practically lifeless monocultures.
The pollution from industry and agriculture has poisoned the air, our waterways and ecosystems. Once forested uplands in areas such as the Scottish Highlands, Central and North Wales and national parks such as the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Dartmoor and Peak District are now almost entirely devoid of trees – apart from forestry plantations – and remain heavily grazed, mainly by sheep and deer .
In recent centuries, high levels of hunting have wiped out our larger animals, and even today a staggering number of species is routinely persecuted as “pests”.
Relatively recently, red squirrels, wild cats, beavers, wolves, and bears would have inhabited significant wilderness areas, including large tracts of forest.
But the move toward industrialization and landscape-dominant farms—while bringing numerous benefits to humans—has come at a high price for nearly every other species.
In the early 21st century, as the effects of the climate crisis are felt globally, the natural world in Britain is in a deeply bleak position, with the country recognized as one of the most nature-deprived corners of the entire planet.
An analysis carried out by experts at the Natural History Museum in 2020 finished that “Britain has led the world in the destruction of the natural environment”, where human impacts – particularly from agriculture and transport – have reduced wildlife “to a point hardly seen elsewhere”.
This was the point we were at before Britain “unprecedented” heat wave this summer, when temperatures exceeded 40 degrees for the first time, and which has been followed by the long, brutal drought that is still ongoing and could last into next year. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned.
Things aren’t getting any better. This week, WWF warned that “the way we produce food is the most important cause of biodiversity loss”.
Meanwhile, with little concerted action underway to rein in fossil fuels in the UK – and plans under Liz Truss’s administration to embark on new fracking and North Sea gas and oil projects – the climate crisis means the already uncertain future of wildlife in this country is likely to become even more severe.
“Even marine species are affected,” WWF’s Mr De Ornellas said, “with warming oceans exacerbating the effects of overfishing to threaten the food supply for many of our seabirds, including puffins.”
“All over the world, climate change is making extreme weather events, such as heat waves, wildfires, floods and droughts, both more frequent and more intense. Nature is crying out for help, but it can also be our greatest ally in the fight against climate change. We can bring our world back to life , but only if we act quickly to protect and restore nature, reduce emissions and increase investment in renewable energy.”