From seals to butterflies - how Norfolk's nature fared in 2021

Colony of Sandwich terns, Sterna sandvicensis, with breeding adults and juveniles on a gravel bank,

Colony of Sandwich terns, Sterna sandvicensis, with breeding adults and juveniles on a gravel bank at Blakeney. - Credit: National Trust Images/Ian War

Grey seals are on track for another record-breaking season for pups but butterfly numbers are down, a National Trust report looking back at 2021 has found.

The body's report considers the effects of extreme weather events on bird species, butterflies, seals and vegetation.

It points to prolonged periods of dry weather seen around the country this year, coastal erosion and weather events including Storm Arwen, which hit at the end of November.

A young Common Ash Tree, with symptoms of the deadly plant pathogen fungus Chalara Fraxinea Dieback.

A young Common Ash Tree, with symptoms of the deadly plant pathogen fungus Chalara Fraxinea Dieback. Pic: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The body says, more widely, warmer, wetter winters are resulting in diseases such as ash dieback, which can cause significant loss of trees.

The trust has felled another 30,000 trees due to ash dieback, a problem which it says is being exacerbated by climate change.

This summer is expected to be within the top 10 warmest on record, it says, with a high of 32.2C recorded at Heathrow Airport in July.

As well as looking how grey seals in north Norfolk and butterflies at Blakeney fared, it also covers notable nature developments.

Most Read

This year, the endangered Norfolk Hawker dragonfly, previously only found in the Norfolk Broads, was found at the Wimpole Estate in Cambridge.

The endangered Norfolk Hawker dragonfly, spotted at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire.

The endangered Norfolk Hawker dragonfly, spotted at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire. - Credit: Graham Damant

Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation and restoration ecology at the National Trust, said: “Climate change is making some forms of extreme weather events the new normal.

"Heatwaves and heavy rainfall are becoming more frequent and more intense. What we’re seeing in the UK with the impacts of wildfires and severe storms such as Arwen and Barra, is how climate change is altering our landscapes forever. 

Matted sea lavender, pictured at Blakeney point.

Matted sea lavender, pictured at Blakeney point. - Credit: Richard Porter

“These dramatic incidents reflect what is going on elsewhere in the world, with extreme temperatures of over 50C in California resulting in the state’s largest wildfire burning 390,000 hectares of land and extreme rainfall in China of 201.9mm in an hour resulting in devastating flash floods.”

He said the events put more pressure on Britain’s wildlife, with more than half of species in decline and 15pc of species under threat of extinction. Ongoing conservation work, he said, helped it weather the storms.

Birds

A chilly April and May, which brought rain and gales, led to a poor nesting season for many species, including Lapwings at Blakeney Freshes, which were put off by cold ground conditions.

At Blakeney Point, Sandwich and Common terns did well thanks to plentiful food and a lack of disturbance from people and dogs.

In total, 3,134 pairs of Sandwich tern nested, the most since 2013, and fledged at least 997 chicks.

Common tern numbers were the highest since 1980, and 324 pairs successfully raised a minimum of 190 chicks.

In contrast, despite a good start to the season and a peak Little tern nest count, adult birds abandoned their nests, scared off by the presence of a short-eared owl and a roost of common gulls. 

A male purple emperor butterfly at Sheringham Park.

A male Purple Emperor butterfly at Sheringham Park. - Credit: Rob Coleman

Butterflies

This year saw the lowest number of butterflies recorded in the Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, with 60pc of species in lower numbers than in 2020.

The trust’s teams noticed butterflies emerging later due to the very cool spring, with numbers lower than normal at areas including Blakeney, though the range of species was still positive.

This was in stark contrast to 2020 when the early and warm spring resulted in early emergence, although 2020 ended up being an average year for many species due to the dull and wet summer.

A highlight, it said, was the first sighting of the mysterious Purple Emperor at Anglesey Abbey, in Cambridgeshire, and further sightings at Sheringham Park, where it seems to have established itself since 2017.

The emperor was declared extinct in the country more than 50 years ago, but there have been sightings around Norfolk over the last four years.

A grey seal colony on the Norfolk coast. Picture: James Bass

A grey seal colony on the Norfolk coast. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2010

Grey seals

Grey seal colonies cared for by the National Trust are expecting an increase in pup numbers again this year, continuing an upward trend since counts began, largely thanks to a lack of predators and plentiful food.

In 2007 there were 297 pups at Blakeney, the trust’s website says, and in 2019/20 there were 3,399.

It comes in spite of Storm Arwen at the end of November, with rangers reporting that the colonies appear to have survived relatively unscathed.

Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast welcomed a record number of grey seals. One or two seals are often seen out on the beach, but more than 200 were spotted and stayed for several days.

Seals can be spotted at Blakeney Point all year round, but between late October and mid January large numbers congregate to give birth and breed.

They are also spotted at Horsey between October and February.
 

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter