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Animal populations at risk as species look to recover from record rainfall

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 09, 2013

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Farmers already know the devastating impact of last year's rainfall, which was close to record-breaking in the Westcountry.

But the longer-term impact for wildlife could be just as serious with conservationists warning that songbirds, butterflies, water voles and kingfishers could all be less abundant in 2013 because of losses caused by the persistent rain and flooding.

The problems for many species are likely to be compounded by the mild January we're experiencing. Insects and hibernating mammals could become active too early in the year, using up vital energy and making them vulnerable, particularly if a cold snap should come along before spring. Last year's breeding season for birds such as chiffchaff, blackcap and whitethroat was badly affected by the damp and chilly summer.

Clutches of eggs failed and food, like insects, was in short supply for the chicks that did hatch.

Chiffchaffs produced 40% fewer young than in an average year. And although locally, in parts of Cornwall, there are reports of healthy populations of blackcaps, overall numbers of young are said to be down by 62%.

Chiffchaffs, blackcaps and whitethroat are all migratory warblers.

British breeding birds including blue tits, great tits and chaffinches have also been affected with the number of young produced by each species down by up to a half on what would be expected in a normal year.

Malcolm Ausden, principal ecologist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said: "Many of these birds can breed very well when conditions are good so there is a chance they will bounce back this year but if we get a second bad year then it could have a more long-term impact."

He warned that ground-nesting birds – many of whom lost nest sites to flood water earlier last year – also suffered badly.

Bank-dwelling species, from kingfishers to water voles – a species of mammal that is just beginning to re-establish itself after years of serious decline – have in many cases found themselves washed out of their homes by high river levels.

Otters too, forced to flee rivers that were turned into raging torrents, have suffered with a number of reports across the country of the much-loved mammals found dead on roads, including cases in Devon.

One wildlife trust officer said: "A lot of species along the river are well adapted to flooding during the winter, but it is the fact that we have had it all year that has caused the real issues.

"Small mammals and birds have been hammered by floods at a time when there are vulnerable young around."

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