This year’s “litany” of weather extremes, including storms, drought and record-breaking heat, is set to become the new norm, the National Trust has warned.
In its annual review of the year, the conservation charity said 2022’s weather had been challenging for nature, from habitats scorched by wildfire to natterjack toads, butterflies, birds and bats hit by drought.
It warned this year was a “stark illustration” of the difficulties many of the UK’s species could face without more action to tackle climate change and help nature cope – with extremes likely to worsen as temperatures rise.
This year, the country saw a warm January, followed by back-to-back storms in February that brought down trees, a dry spring, a heatwave summer with temperatures above 40C for the first time on record and drought, before ending with a freezing snap in December followed by milder weather.
Alongside the weather extremes, 2022 was also a devastating year for wild birds hit by avian flu, with thousands of seabirds dying in colonies such as on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, where they had returned to breed.
While there were some “winners” this year, including good apple crops on many National Trust estates, and another record-breaking year for choughs breeding on its land in Cornwall, there were also many losers from the turbulent seasons, the charity said.
The hot summer and months of low rainfall dried up rivers, fragile chalk streams and ponds, damaged crops and natural habitats, and fuelled wildfires that destroyed landscapes.
Wildfires on National Trust land scorched areas including Zennor Head, Cornwall, Bolberry Down in south Devon, Baggy Point in north Devon and Studland in Dorset, destroying homes of species including rare sand lizards.
The dry conditions hit wildlife including natterjack toads, whose shallow ponds for breeding dried up, and bats had to be rescued in the heatwave.
Flying insects including many butterfly species and bumblebees had a poor year as flowering plants withered and died in the dry heat, and the lack of insects had knock-on impacts on birds such as swifts which rely on them to feed their young.
It was a mixed year overall for wildflowers, with early flowering species such as cuckooflower and cowslips getting off to a good start, while later species such as white campion did less well in the drought, the Trust said.
Trees planted last winter, to store carbon and boost woodland habitat, were hit by the drought and extreme heat, with 50% of saplings lost on estates such as Wimpole in Cambridgeshire and Buscot and Coleshill in Oxfordshire.
Luke Barley, trees and woodlands adviser at the National Trust, said the losses damaged the efforts to increase woodland cover – but they would adapt plans based on findings that mulching saplings and allowing natural regeneration of self-seeded trees helped them survive better.
Trees and shrubs did see a “mast year” in many areas, where they produced an abundance of seeds and nuts, as a warm spring saw lots of insects pollinating blossom before the stress of the summer heat and drought encouraged them to produce a mass of seeds to help their genes survive, the Trust said.
Keith Jones, climate change adviser at the National Trust, said: “There is no escaping that this year’s weather has been challenging for nature.
“Drought, high temperatures, back-to-back storms, unseasonal heat, the recent cold snap and floods means nature, like us, is having to cope with a new litany of weather extremes.
“It is a stark illustration of the sort of difficulties many of our species will face if we don’t do more to mitigate rising temperatures and helping nature’s survival.”
He added: “Weather experts predict that the future will see more torrential downpours, along with very dry and hot summers, with 2022 setting a benchmark for what a ‘typical’ year for weather could be like.
“But the ‘new normal’ is also likely to result in even more extreme weather events than now.”
Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation and restoration ecology at the National Trust, said: “Our wildlife is under extraordinary pressure from a number of sources such as habitat loss and pollution.
“Now we’ve got this topsy-turvy weather coming in as climate change bites, which impacts the predictable seasonal patterns and adds further pressure on our wildlife.”
He said that with the changing weather patterns, and more diseases such as avian flu hitting wildlife, there was “no doubting the scale of the challenges we face and how much our nature needs our helping hand”.
The National Trust said conservation work to improve habitat was helping make the environment and species more resilient to the changes brought by rising temperatures.
At Holnicote in Somerset, beavers introduced to an enclosure have engineered a wet woodland habitat with higher water levels, supporting other species, and maintaining a lush landscape through the summer drought.
Efforts to restore peatland – which in a healthy state stores vast amounts of carbon and provides habitat for plants and animals – by raising water levels and bringing back sphagnum moss helped it stay wet over the summer and protected the peat, Mr McCarthy said.
At Purbeck Heath in Dorset work to create a wildlife rich landscape means the Trust expects it to recover more quickly from a devastating fire this year, as species will be able to recolonise the burnt areas, the charity said.