Drought and wildlife

Wading birds like lapwing rely on wet conditions to feed. Image: David LongshawWading birds like lapwing rely on wet conditions to feed. Image: David Longshaw

The Wildlife Trusts are urging people to save water for wildlife to help reduce the impacts of drought on wildlife such as water voles, amphibians, fish and wading birds.

In the light of the 2012 Drought Prospects Report, from the Environment Agency, Government has warned that without well above average rainfall during March and April 2012 the current low water levels in southern, eastern and central England are unlikely to recover. The Met Office outlook suggests that the chances of well above average rainfall in the coming weeks is low. In the absence of significant rainfall the likelihood is that drought will increasingly affect wildlife across further areas of the country. 2012 is therefore set to be a very difficult year for wildlife.

Long periods of dry weather reduce the availability of water that birds need for drinking and bathing and make it harder for birds, mammals and amphibians that feed on insects and worms. Blackbirds, robins, thrushes, starlings, badgers, hedgehogs and shrews are just some of the animals that find it difficult to reach the worms and insects that live in the soil during dry conditions.

Wading birds

Image: Tom Marshall Wildlife has already suffered under the dry conditions of spring 2011, which reduced the breeding success of species such as wading birds and water voles. Wading birds cannot feed if the ground is dry and hard. They are also left vulnerable to predation where water bodies are dry and vegetation is not growing as it should. Poor breeding success over two consecutive years could have a serious impact on populations of already vulnerable wading birds such as redshank.

Water voles

Water vole by Amy LewisIn Suffolk, the Wildlife Trust has monitored one water vole site for eight years and has found that in a dry year when water levels are low, even a healthy water vole population is vulnerable to habitat loss and predation. As water levels drop, water vole burrow systems are isolated from the water and voles have to move along exposed bare banks, making them much more vulnerable to predators.

In addition, the dry conditions mean livestock grazing regimes have to change, as cattle have to feed in areas that are usually left untouched for good parts of the year. This in turn impacts on species and habitats. In these difficult circumstances species such as water vole may just about hang on to breed, but at much lower levels, with a population crash potentially occurring the following year.

Rivers and streams

Rivers and streams in counties such as Essex are currently at levels that would normally be expected during mid summer, and staff at Essex Wildlife Trust have expressed concerns about how fish, water voles and invertebrates along streams and ditch systems will fare if the dry conditions continue.

Fish and their habitats are particularly vulnerable. In Dorset, low water levels have exposed salmon redds - the depressions in river gravels where female salmon lay their eggs. Indications that dry conditions are already impacting further north come from Yorkshire, where the Wildlife Trust is concerned about low flows in the chalk streams of East Yorkshire. Here, because the groundwaters have not been replenished over what has been a dry winter, the springs that feed these streams are not rising.

How you can help

“The situation is going to be desperate for amphibians that are now returning to ponds to breed, for wading birds as they come back to their breeding grounds and for a whole host of other species that live in rivers, ponds and wetlands. The dry conditions in our rivers can exacerbate the impacts of any pollutants, adding to the risks. But we can all do our bit at home and at work to save water for wildlife,” says The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscape Development Manager, Helen Perkins.

Tips for saving water include turning off the tap when brushing teeth, or washing fruit and veg in a bowl rather than under a running tap. The Wildlife Trusts have also put together a downloadable guide to helping wildlife in the garden during the drought.

Seven water companies have announced a hosepipe ban commencing on Thursday 5 April 2012. Companies are also offering advice on how to reduce water use and providing free water-saving devices for the home.

Further information can be found on the websites for Anglian Water and Thames Water, as well as the Waterwise website.

Defra is working with partners including The Wildlife Trusts on the Love Your River campaign. For more information visit the website.