After two and a half months with virtually no rain, it’s hard to avoid talking about the drought. My own records show that we’ve been blessed with no more than 32mm of rain during that period, compared to an expected 130mm, a problem compounded by the sometimes blistering heat – the mean maximum temperature in both July and August was a fairly heft three degrees Celsius above the long-term average. What impact has this prolonged dry spell had on wildlife? Well, for a start there appears to be a dearth of birds, both on the reserve, in my garden and in the general countryside, leading me to wonder if mortality has been markedly higher than usual. Large numbers of juvenile birds always die at this time of year – they are independent of their parents, but as yet have not honed the skills needed to avoid predators and find food. So, if food is in short supply because of the drought, it seems likely that death will stalk the woods, fields and hedgerows. One food source popular with mice, foxes, blackbirds and much other wildlife is the humble blackberry, but this autumn many bramble patches have wizened apologies for the luscious fruit that develops in a damper season. But perhaps the most obvious feature of the drought, apart from the dust and cracked ground, has been the premature leaf fall, with the worst affected being sycamore, sweet chestnut, birch and alder. Few tears will be shed for the first two, as these are both neophytes (literally new plants) – non-native species that have been introduced to this country in relatively recent times, and which we are culling at Blean in favour of the genuine native species. Birch and alder, however, are bona fide British trees, and many are now almost bare, their leaves forming drifts on the ground some eight to ten weeks sooner than expected.
Chestnut and sycamore are even more pitiful to look at, as their leaves are simply dying on the branches, dried to a brown crisp instead of wreathed in the glorious palettes of autumn. Dire though all this may sound, the drought won’t kill the trees, which have sufficient resources to tide them over such hard times, but it will certainly weaken them, and a series of dry summers could eventually tip them over the edge. This could in fact be an example of how climate change may alter the range of a species: birch is not well-adapted to dry summers, and is far commoner in the wetter, cooler north of the country, so it may eventually be pushed out of the south and forced to retreat to its Scottish fastness.
Spare a thought for the Blean Woods volunteers who recently embarked on their winter programme of ride-widening and coppicing in this Mediterranean weather. If the idea of getting some exercise in pleasant surroundings with congenial company appeals, why not make a resolution to join the volunteers on a regular basis (perhaps once the weather has cooled down!). Simply phone Nick, the warden, on 01227 464898 or email email@example.com; he’ll be delighted to hear from you.
The RSPB Canterbury Group has a programme of walks through the year, but we have just had our first talk of the autumn season. If you have an interest in wildlife, why not come along to one of our meetings – you would be assured of a warm welcome. They are held on the second Tuesday of each month from September to April, starting at 8pm in St Stephen’s Community Centre, Tenterden Drive, Canterbury CT2 7BN. As a non-member admission is £4.50, but if you sign up to our local group the charge drops to just £3.50 (including refreshments). Where else can you get an evening’s entertainment for that price? You can see full details of our talks, walks and social activities by going to our website at www.rspb.org.uk/groups/canterbury/events.