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How did the cold winter affect your wildlife?

Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 16:34 UK time, Monday, 31 May 2010

Now that spring has arrived it feels a long time ago that we were tackling four inches of snow during the shooting of Snow Watch. The cold snap was a real challenge for wildlife, the long period of freezing temperatures and severe frost and ice outbreaks meant animals were dealing with a lack of food as well as the chilly temperatures.

We asked a few experts about how the cold winter had affected wildlife on their patch. But what about you? Have you noticed anything unusual about this spring's wildlife that our cold winter might have caused?

On Springwatch Gordon visits the RSPB's Ham Wall Reserve  to catch up with the spring activities of the bittern, one of the country's most reclusive birds.

During the big freeze many people recorded sightings of this rarely-sighted, shy bird. The sharp drop in temperature forced bittern populations to forage further afield. Many left the dense reed beds that they are so perfectly camouflaged to live in.

Despite initial fears of survival during these adverse conditions, the arrival of warmer spring temperatures seems to have brought back the distinctive boom off the bittern. It may be a little too early in the day to say the bittern was unaffected by the cold snap, but the deep base tones of the bittern are a welcome return to the Ham Wall Reserve.

Eurasian Bittern

The RSPB's Big garden birdwatch found that a number of country birds had moved into our residential areas in search of food.  But it wasn't just bird species that were affected by the extended snowy conditions. Generally our mammals hibernate for short periods. They emerge to forage for available food, before quickly retreating out of the cold. Many mammals, including badgers and foxes, would have extended their ranges and hunting hours to increase their food supply.

"In theory, a cold, dry winter should have been of benefit to any hibernators - both insects and other animals," says Brian Eversham, Chief Executive of Beds, Cambs, Northants and Peterborough (BCNP) Wildlife Trust. "They usually do better in cold winters as they use less energy while hibernating, and are less likely to be disturbed and come out to look for food which isn't there.

"This seems to have been true this year. Certainly here in East Anglia I have noticed queen bumblebees are milling about in profusion. And a moth count at our Pitsford Reservoir nature reserve recorded the largest numbers since records began there. In April there were three times the average numbers, and this is something I would expect to see mirrored across the UK.

Bluebell woodland

"It's a rather confusing spring, as some species seem to be two to three weeks late, and others are 'on time'. So bluebells were late, green-winged orchids are still looking good, but marsh-orchids are in full bloom already. The earliest damselflies were on the wing in the first week of May in Yorkshire and in central England, and by now, the larger chaser dragonflies are out and about too.

Soilder beetle © Richard Burkmar

"Other invertebrates that could benefit include beetles like the soldier beetles - an attractive sight on the hawthorn blossom, in our meadows or sitting on the flat white heads of hogweed. These have had a few poor years because of cold, wet weather in late spring and early summer.  I hope the winter has helped their hibernation, so that whilst they may be a couple of weeks late in appearing, when they do I would expect there to be a lot of them!"

Barn Owl © Elliot Smith

Further north in the UK, Kevin O'Hara of Northumberland Wildlife Trust says barn owls suffered badly in his county. "We had over 50 recorded mortalities in the county and many more un-recorded. But vole numbers have soared because of the relative peace and quiet they have had under the snow and ice, which meant they have bred well. And fewer voles have been eaten, so numbers proliferate.

Tawny Owl © Damian Waters

"Tawny owl numbers have been swollen by the large numbers of voles, making broods larger than average. The 30-year old study of tawny owls and vole relationships in Kielder Forests has shown that over half (105) of the 200 nest boxes have families this year with several big broods of five."

So over to you. Have you noticed anything unusual this spring that our cold winter might have caused?


  • Comment number 1.

    The score of sparrows living in the near-tumbling garden wall seem to be thriving and saw my first ever house mouse scuttling around the outside of the house today. Hope it stays outside!

  • Comment number 2.

    Before the severe winter we regularly had up to eight grey squirrels (at the same time) visiting our garden daily. Since the winter we are now getting only two squirrels. Other people in our town have also commented on the lack of squirrels.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well that was well timed! Was just going to try and identify the beetle I'd just seen in the garden, when the Springwatch tweet distracted me here, so I came and had a look, and there was a picture of the very beetle I was looking for!! So yes, I have seen a Soldier beetle in our garden in Surrey for the first time. May be just a coincidence, but may show they have done well after the cold winter.

  • Comment number 4.

    We had a pair of Blue Tits nesting in a box in our garden, all was going well, chicks hatched, then one day a woodpecker was pecking at the entrance hole of the box, after that the parent birds didn't come back!
    I had thought that I had seen a sparrow go into the box very early on!,after seeing flies go in, we took the box down to check, there were 3 or 4 blue tits,tiny but with feathers, also 2 much larger babies without feathers!!! any ideas? could the larger ones have been sparrows, so sad to have lost the Blue Tits, they have nested in our box for the last 2/3years.

  • Comment number 5.

    I wouldn't know if it is down to the cold winter...but here in the Midlands, the bees seem to be more prolific but this year I have seen a lot more of our native ladybirds?

  • Comment number 6.

    Having just moved to a new house in the country in early December, we were delighted to see how quickly our bird feeders began to be used. We were thrilled when a Great Spotted Woodpecker began visiting daily and were amazed when an albino woodpecker appeared! He is brilliant white apart from his eyes and the bright red spot (which is heart shaped!) under his tail. He visited almost daily through the worst of the weather (it was exceptionally bad here up in North East Scotland) and I think he now visits very early in the morning (bearing in mind the sun rises here at 4am). He is quite stunning and we are thrilled to have him dine at our feeders!

  • Comment number 7.

    Pottering along in our narrowbaot this Spring along the Kennet and Avon from Bath and up the Thames from Reading to Oxford and then up the Oxford canal we have noticed a distinct lack of ducklings ( mainly the standard canal Mallard)but also other species. We have also noticed some very aggressive behaviour amongst the remaining families when being fed with adults chasing the ducklings away very and unusually aggresively as well as fighting amongst themselves.Has anyone else noticed this and is the cold, late Spring the reason?

  • Comment number 8.

    On Saturday 29th May the Amersham Bird Club visited RSPB Lakenheath. There we saw first one bittern flying, then two and then four and finally five! They didn't seem to be fighting or displaying to eahc other but just flying in formation. After some 30-40 seconds they gradually dispersed.
    Later one or two were still flying around.

  • Comment number 9.

    On the programme tonight, you commented about the survival of deer in the south.
    We live a few hundred yards from Ashridge Forest, a National Trust owned estate, where there is a large herd of Fallow Deer. We occasionally see individual deer, particularly stags, straying into outlying parts of the town, but they are very shy and cautious and do not venture too far.
    Ashridge Forest is on a high plateau and in the recent cold weather, snow would last there much longer and was deeper than in the valleys either side.
    We returned back from holiday in early January late at night, with snow still lying, to find seven female and immature deer feeding on one of the bushes by our front door. A few days later they returned to finish the job, that we had interrupted.
    They only ate the bush one side of our front door, leaving the other totally untouched. Neither bush has thorns, but presumably one is not to their taste. They left a large amount of their droppings, which remained long after the snow had disappeared, as evidence of the deed.
    So it would seem that in southern, more inhabited areas, they overcame the harsh winter by taking additional risks and seeking out alternative food sources successfully.
    The bush looked like it had been given a 'number one' haircut for several weeks, but now looks better than ever with fresh growth- a 'win-win' situation in nature if ever there was one

  • Comment number 10.

    Can the cold weather actually cause an increase in numbers in some birds species?

    Take the Red Backed Shrike for instantce? I was told this little fellow had not been seen in years, I saw it near Harwich in Essex in Early April followed by a friend seeing what must have been the same Red Backed Shrike only 100 yards or so away from the same spot 1 month later.

    I wrote about it here http://harwich-ramsey-doggy-blog.blogspot.com/2010/05/redbacked-shrike-sighting.html be very interested if others have seen the RBS as it was mentioned on Country File the same week I had the pleasure of seeing it and now been seen on 2 occasions by Nature Watch presenters as mentionede by Chris on tonights show.

    So I wonder if the bad weather has actayually helped the Red Backed Shrike. Would love to hear your views.

  • Comment number 11.

    Our normally voracious population of snails and slugs seems to have died out over the winter with no sign of either so far this year. Good news for the seedlings but I assume bad news for the birds. Also, we had lots of coal/blue/great tits over the winter but they disappeared in April and I am wondering why. Has anyone else noticed this?

  • Comment number 12.

    we have been lucky to see bitterns at Minsmere. Once for 45 mins -beautiful. We have seen them flying. Two springs ago there were three in formation. They took off together and landed together

  • Comment number 13.

    Wood anemones seemed far more abundant than other years in our local wood. Maybe the trees leafing up later allowed more sunshine to the woodland floor.

  • Comment number 14.

    I'm in East lothian in Scotland and I'm seeing very little in the way of bees but a remarkable increase in the number of snails.

  • Comment number 15.

    Im on the outskirts of Edinburgh and I have seen a glut of very large bees all drawn to my lilac tree and the various purple flowers on the garden. can be anything up to 4 at a time. Also quite a few birds fledging in my front garden hedge (Blckbirds and hedge Sparrows). There where all sorts of birds and animals out during the looooong snowy period as me and 3 other neighbours made sure there was all sorts of food out at most times (for some reason the Starlings really liked re-hydrated mixed fruit and peel. No accounting for taste) Ive seen the squirrels back and active. From an urban point of view, I cannot see a difference in numbers. Its good to know. I hope it is a trend that there are not too many die outs in species.

  • Comment number 16.

    I spend a lot of time in an ancient oak wood near shildon in Co Durham.When the snow was down i saw a barn owl hunting at mid-day,so obviously struggling but happy to say i saw him two weeks ago at dusk hunting voles.Roe Deer numbers took a big hit.Around 16 live in and around the wood but are down to around 7-8 and i found 3 dead over the winter.Frogs and toads have done well and heavier spawning than usual.Fox seemed ok as iv seen plenty this spring in the wood.As mentioned voles have boomed as elsewhere.Over-all i think wildlife did really when considering the winter as i was very worried.

  • Comment number 17.

    @ superkrispydj - Now you've got me wondering about my bees since I'm can only be about 15 miles away from you. Normally the town is covered in them until the oil seed comes up but I've seen maybe five or six in the last day. I'm going to have to get myself out there in the next week to see what's going on with that.

  • Comment number 18.

    As in post11,i've noticed that the slugs and snails seem to have disappeared,we had both about a month ago but they seem to have vanished,not even slime trails.

  • Comment number 19.

    Is it normal for Curlews to over-winter AND nest on downland, with no river/bog/shore/ for miles ? I walk my dogs on the Lambourn Downs most days and while walking the gallops in the evening I saw one of the regular curlews pop out of the long grassy, un-mown area ahead of me. With the dogs at a safe distance away I decided to search for a possible nest and was so lucky and amazed to find one, a scrape with a beautiful clutch of 4 olive green with chocolatey speckled large eggs. I took a quick photo on my phone and then left before the dogs came over. It makes you realize just how vulnerable these nest sites are with gallops maintenance and mowing going on all around them every day, not to mention the magpies and rooks everywhere too. I wondered if you might like to send one of your cameramen to film the nest and hopefully catch the eggs hatching and surviving. [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 20.

    Please contact me if you want to film the curlew eggs and see how they cope up here on the Lambourn Downs......nowhere near the sea !!!

  • Comment number 21.

    I am concerned over the huge increase in crows,rooks,jackdaws and magpies frequenting my garden.....i think my fledged bluetits may not survive for very long.Also,i have sparrow colony boxes which despite interested pairs,keep getting attacked by an aggressive sparrow in my single box on another wall.Three years running he has done this and even attacked his own mate and saw her off...hence...no babies.....oh,and plenty of snails but no slugs this year.

  • Comment number 22.

    Following the cold winter I have no lily beetles (nasty things). My lilies are usually smothered by now. Has the cold weather had any effect on other alien invaders?

  • Comment number 23.

    The frogs suffered terribly in my garden this year. Normally my pond is brimming with mating frogs and frog spawn, but apart from on very early deposit of spawn (which didn't develop), all I found was dead and dying frogs near my pond (50 or more) throughout the early spring.

    I would love to know if others have witnessed this mass destruction of frog populations. Even now, I have only seen two live frogs in the last month, and no successful spawning at all this year. I inspected the frogs and there was no sign of the common diseases, and I wonder if they just starved to death in the cold weather? Even now I keep finding mummified frogs. Normally I can find lots of frogs around my garden.

    I'm live in the normally mild Plymouth in Devon

  • Comment number 24.

    Hi all.

    I live in Caldicot, South Wales and we appear to have lost a lot of the smaller birds around the castle. There are very few Long Tailed Tits, I've only seen 1 Willow Warbler, there also seems to be very few tits, and no greenfinches or Goldfinches.
    Last years there were high numbers of all small bird species.
    I can only put this down to the long extremely cold winter.

  • Comment number 25.

    In the Netherlands temperatures were very low until the second half of march. After that we had very warm and dry weather for about 4 weeks. Many Great Tits started nesting earlier than usual. But in april the weather was cold and wet again, so there was a shortage of caterpillars and other insects. We had many reports of nests that failed, including the Great Tit webcam nest of the Dutch bird conservation society (Vogelbescherming). Our webcam footage is very sad and dramatic this year: http://www.beleefdelente.nl/koolmees (in Dutch)

  • Comment number 26.

    Thanks for all your comments everyone! Some amazing stories here.

    Have you managed to get any pictures of your mixed chick nest Maggie? Or of your albino woodpecker Caro?

    Great to hear our tweeting helped you out Frankchester!

    We'll pass your stories onto our team and see if they've heard of anything similar.

    Sam :)

  • Comment number 27.

    I'm in North London, in Haringey, near large green spaces, and although the small bird populations are down- judging by the dawn chorus- they are there. The local House Martins reared two families at the end of the road, one arriving in early May last year, one at the end. There are none this year, and I have seen perhaps four individuals, probably migrating, I think in the middle of May. What have other people seen?

  • Comment number 28.

    I live in wales, in the hills we have had mistle thrushes nesting in the wood and all four chicks fledged last week, and we have even more sparrows eating everything we put out even hanging upside down from the feeders! However I have not seen a treecreeper this year though they nested the last two years. Good News we have a fox earth newly dug in the field no idea how if they have cubs or not as I've only seen a fox there once. The cold winter hasn't helped the treecreepers but the mistle thrushes are definitely a bonus!

  • Comment number 29.

    by far the biggest loss over the winter for me was frogs, dozens of dead frogs

  • Comment number 30.

    I work at a wildlife rescue and rehab centre, and we found earlier this year that wadeing bird seemed to be really babdy affected by the long freeze. we often get a couple of very thin woodcock each winter, but during the first week of january this year we had 14 woodcock! Lots of them were found in gardens where they never normal venture and ended up as easy cat victims. We also had alot more Roe deer being injured on roads because they were wandering in to more built-up and busy areas in search of vegetation. This also allowed lots of people to feed deer in their gardens and get really great views of them.So that was a nice plus resulting from the long long cold

  • Comment number 31.

    I Saw Tadpoles in a small stream heading into the sea, North Cornwall Portreath on the South West Coast Path. Looking at Frog Metamorphosis, they were at least 40 days old. Interesting huh Tadpoles in June.

  • Comment number 32.

    Just goes to show the benefits of wrapping up nice and warm as winter sets in


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