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Well there can be only one topic of conversation for this month’s Nature Notes and that’s the drought we’ve been experiencing over the past weeks. This will undoubtedly have had an adverse impact on nature at the Rec, as it has elsewhere
Drought is defined as a prolonged period without rainfall, to the extent that it adversely affects the environment. The situation has been exacerbated by the excessively hot temperatures we’ve also been experiencing. Apparently here in the UK we’ve had the driest July since 1935 and temperatures that have never previously been recorded in this country.
The problem is that every living thing, plant or animal, relies on water for its survival. Some have evolved techniques to cope in areas of low rainfall, but our flora and fauna is adapted to live in a relatively cool, wet climate. For example, bumble bees have very hairy bodies, which helps conserve heat and makes them well suited to the temperate regions they mostly inhabit. However in very hot conditions, this is a distinct disadvantage. Not only are they less capable of flying, but are also at serious risk of lethal over heating. Our ecosystems are finely balanced and if any one aspect is out of kilter, it produces consequences elsewhere. Given time, nature can adapt to changes in climatic conditions, but the rate of change now is so rapid, that many more species are likely to be lost, especially those unable to seek out more favourable conditions
We can clearly see the effects of the drought at The Rec in terms of all the parched vegetation. Plants need water for the vital process of photosynthesis, by which they create fuel to enable growth, repair and reproduction. The water used in this process is absorbed through their roots, and carried up to the leaves. Here it’s broken down into its constituent parts to produce glucose. Excess moisture is lost through small pores on the surface of the leaves, as more water is drawn up to continue the cycle. When water is in short supply, plants will endeavour to conserve what they have by shutting down this process and entering winter dormancy. The leaf pores close, and chlorophyll breaks down to expose other pigments, such as those that give trees their autumn colours. Leaf drop follows, and if the drought persists, there will be some plants that will pass the point of recovery. Beech and birch are amongst the least drought resistant trees, and both occur at the Rec. Unfortunately, the beech hedge is looking particularly sad.
Stressed vegetation has other consequences. The plants become much more susceptible to disease and growth is poor, as is the production of flowers, and fruit. This has a knock on effect for other wildlife such as insects, birds and mammals. Insects are dependent on flowering plants for pollen and nectar, to feed themselves and the next generation. When flowering is poor and nectar levels are low, the insects are badly impacted. Butterfly Conservation have identified a crash in numbers of butterflies following previous drought years because of insufficient fresh green plants for their caterpillars to feed on.
And of course, a reduction in the number of insects affects other species that prey on them, such as bats and starlings, both of which occur in small numbers at the Rec. Residents such as blackbirds and hedgehogs, rely on earthworms for a significant part of their diet, but in drought conditions, the earth becomes baked and the worms burrow into the deeper, moister layers where they become inaccessible.
Everything is compromised by prolonged drought. Frogs and toads have more difficulty finding cool, moist spots to shelter in, animals become dehydrated and biodiversity is seriously impacted.
So how have we been dealing with this at the Rec? There’s no doubt it’s been a challenge and we faced the dilemma of whether to save water or do our best to keep the garden going. We opted for the latter, partly because we have spent so much time and effort creating the garden, but primarily because we wanted to maintain an area for the pollinators. We had to leave the wildlife meadow to dry out, so the flowerbeds were their only resource. You may have seen a dedicated team of gardeners going to and fro with watering cans, heroically trying to keep things alive against pretty severe odds! We’ve also been regularly deadheading the plants and shrubs in an effort to promote further flowering. And most importantly, we’ve provided sources of water for birds, insects and other animals by way of a large saucer on the ground and 2 birdbaths. Fortunately there is plenty of cover at the Rec, including in the far corner of the garden, to allow wildlife a cool, safe refuge from the intense heat of the sun.
We can only hope that the meadow, beech hedge and other plants that have been severely affected will recover next year, along with all the other species that depend on them. Only time will tell. But future plans will need to take account of the increased likelihood of summers like this. We will have to seriously consider planting more drought tolerant species and creating more micro- habitats for our beleaguered wildlife.
PS I promise something more cheerful next month!!
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