Hopes for a record-breaking breeding season at the RSPB's Broadland reserves were dashed by the summer's relentless rain. Concerns are now mounting over the threat to Broadland wildlife from climate change. Wardens at the RSPB's Berney Marshes and Mid Yare reserves had been optimistic following the spring arrival of record numbers of breeding birds.
At Buckenham Marshes, the number of breeding avocets more than doubled to a record 23 pairs. At Berney Marshes, the number of wading birds reached an all-time high with an unprecedented count of 143 pairs of lapwings, 97 pairs of redshanks and six displaying male snipe.
Record numbers of breeding birds were attracted to the reserves largely thanks to the creation and restoration of vital habitat features. By carefully controlling water levels and cattle grazing on the marshes, the wardens have created a mosaic of wet grassland, footdrains and pools of shallow water that are ideal feeding and breeding grounds for wading birds.
Despite the high number of breeding pairs, hopes for a bumper crop of young fledglings were dashed by the chaotic weather. The summer downpours washed out nests and chilled eggs, while many chicks struggled to survive the cold, wet weather.
There were 37 pairs of avocets at Berney Marshes, but due to extreme fluctuations in water levels not a single chick survived. At Strumpshaw Fen, the only bittern nest was flooded, destroying hopes that a young bittern would be fledged at the reserve for the first time since 2003. Marsh harrier nests were also washed out, with only four out of nine nests in the Mid Yare reserves successfully rearing young.
Some species, such as snipe, faired better than usual in this year's wetter conditions. Kingfishers at Strumpshaw Fen also bred successfully, with visitors enjoying fantastic views of the youngsters learning to fish in front of the viewing hides. However, the usual abundance of butterflies at Strumpshaw Fen - including the rare and spectacular swallowtail butterfly - was diminished by the high rainfall.
The RSPB fears that this year's chaotic weather is the start of worse to come.
Such extreme fluctuations in weather are predicted to become more frequent and intense with climate change. Temperature extremes, sea level rise and more frequent floods and droughts are expected to impact the availability of habitat and food for wildlife as well as altering seasonal behaviour such as hibernation and migration.
Strumpshaw Fen site manager, Tim Strudwick said: 'If this kind of weather becomes more common, it will have serious impacts on wildlife in the Broads and elsewhere. This year we swung from an extremely dry spring to a very wet summer, making it a difficult breeding season for all kinds of wildlife. Extreme fluctuations in water levels also make it much harder for us to carry out essential conservation management on the reserve.'
Last week, the RSPB launched a major new report, Climate change, wildlife and adaptation, calling for the government to provide funds for far-reaching action to help wildlife adapt to climate change. Crucial to wildlife will be measures to help vulnerable species relocate as their existing homes become too warm, too dry or too wet.
Ruth Davis, the RSPB's Head of Climate Change and co-author of the report, said: 'The biggest long-term threat facing wildlife is climate change. Many species won't adapt quickly enough unless we help them and if we don't help them, we could lose them. We must improve existing habitats and reduce the impact of persecution, pollution and development on existing wildlife populations. Then we must create new habitats into which wildlife can move.'
Thanks to the financial support of its members, the RSPB is already working to create new habitats into which wildlife can move as their existing homes become uninhabitable. As well as financial support for conservation, individuals can also help by taking simple steps to a greener lifestyle. Visitors to Strumpshaw Fen reserve can pick up a free copy of the RSPB's 'Take Action for the Planet' booklet with tips on how to green your home and garden for the benefit of wildlife and people.