I would be wrong of me to open this weeks article with anything not linked to the incredibly dry weather we have been experiencing recently. And, while it may have come as a nice surprise for early season cricketers (although Newton’s square already looks like mid August) and has brought a potentially bumper crop of pears to my trees, it is having a massive impact in the countryside.
Last week fire tenders, and staff support from Clinton Devon Estates and RSPB fought a fire which had broke out on Aylesbeare Common and the neighbouring Hawkerland Common. 60 firefighters battled the flames which at times towered over their heads, as this precious heathland was saved. Late summer fires are a serious problem for the heaths, but in many respects the species have evolved to cope with this natural phenomenon, what makes May’s fires particularly disasterous is that is occurred during the nesting season and any birds caught in the blaze will have perished.
The notable bird species for East Devon’s heathlands, the rare Dartford Warbler, was already having a torrid time of it in 2011, after two successive cold winters were seen to be taking their toll on the population. This outbreak could well have added another obstacle in their recovery. After periods of prolonged dry weather, much of the countryside becomes tinder dry, but particularly heathland. Fires can start through natural processes, however most are caased by people’s negligence or malign intent.
If you are out walking or picnicing on the commons this Spring, please be aware of the increased fire risks and do all you can to minimise the chances of accidentally starting a fire. I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting, as the more people who are there to enjoy the heath, the more pairs of protectie eyes are on site to look out for any lowlife who may intend to start a fire deliberately. Fire Officers commented that the blaze on Aylesbeare seemed suspicious as there were two centres to the fire, one hundred metres apart.
Wildlife is feeling the pinch at sites across the region due to the dry weather, and many wildlife charities are asking people to leave shallow dishes of water in their gardens for the likes of hedgehogs and garden birds. A report of a ring ouzel visiting a garden in Sheffield to drink from a bird bath, should be encouragement enough for all of us to pop a few dishes in the garden!
Species reliant on standing water may also be in jeopardy if the dry weather continues, as pond levels fall. Most of the species which have adapted to live in ponds are fully amphibious in one way or another, meaning that they are able to easily move from one pond to the next as water levels naturally fluctuate. In the summer, for example, it is common to have water boatmen fall into dry metal dishes left out in the sun, as they are mistaken for open water by the insects as they fly overhead.
Indeed, due to the very wet nature of Devon, one species of newt is particularly rare. Our wet climate means that most of our ponds remain full of water throughout the year. The Great Crested Newt, which is the rarest species to be found in the UK, specialises in inhabiting ponds which seasonally dry up in the summer, making them less inviting for competitors in the newt’s niche.
Devon’s ponds seldom dry out, and so there are only a very few places in the county where you can find these warty giants.
Dragonflies are bound to water for most of their lives, as they spend the vast proportion of their time underneath it as nymphs. While an adult dragonfly may be on the wing for a month or six weeks, it could have spent up to three or even four years underwater in it development. Really, we should call them Dragonswims.
This broad bodied chaser was found by a group of us on Stafford Marsh last week, during an wetlands visit by Exeter University. We were meant to be carrying out a small mammal survey but, as is often the case, any impressive animal stumbled upon sparked conversation!
The bright golden hue of this individual means it is a young adult, known as a teneral. As soon as the adults have crawled out of the water and emerged from their nymphal skin, they fly away from the competitive water’s edge to spend few days building the strength to defend a section of the reproductive pond. If you look closely at this individual, you can see evidence of how dangerous life by the pool is, as the lower wing on the left hand side shows signs of damage already incurred.
This individual could still potentially build up the strength to return to the pond, however if the wing damage affects his flight ability too much, he will not be able to match the other ariel acrobats above the water and will probably not breed successfully.
The weather has such a profound impact on our lives, us Brits talk of little else when making small talk. However, for those animals and plants which are not tended by a human overseer, the weather is an all-together more mortal concern.