Wildlife fears if drought continues

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IF THE drought situation continues, it could spell disaster for West Sussex’s much-loved wildlife, says the RSPB in response to the crisis meeting held yesterday (Tuesday) by the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman.

The meeting of businesses, wildlife groups and other river users was called after the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology (CEH) stated that the average rainfall so far this winter has been the lowest since 1972.

With counties in the south east of England being home to some important wetland sites for wildlife this drought could hit species hard, threatening their survival into the summer if the rain doesn’t fall in the next few weeks.

Paul Spiers, warden at RSPB Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex said: “Our natural spring lines and surface water runoff have really slowed down. This is a worrying situation approaching the end of February.

“At the moment our water levels are down on average winter conditions, and we are taking steps to hang on to all the water we can on the reserve. If low rainfall persists into March, spring conditions for breeding waders on the reserve will be far from ideal.”

The offspring of birds that breed on wet meadows, such as lapwings and redshanks, must find their own food as soon as they hatch. Invertebrates get harder to find as fields dry out and the young are unable to fly to find other sources of food until they fledge.

According to the Met office, there is only a 15 per cent chance of the next three months being abnormally wet. This means that restrictions on water use across the UK will be imminent and will have huge impacts on the management of nature reserves.

Rob Cunningham, Head of Water Policy at the RSPB said: “The RSPB is in the process of assessing how vulnerable our nature reserves are to future drought. We are taking action to ensure our reserves can hold more water when it does fall and making sure we use it efficiently.”

“A winter flood is good because it leaves pools and a high ground water table for the spring. We are very concerned that 2012 could be another disastrous nesting season. We are working with the Environment Agency and Drainage Board to use the water that is available as wisely as possible.”

In the wider countryside rivers and reservoirs are also running low with stocks substantially below the previous minimum for Ardingly and the second lowest in a series from 1998 at Bewl (East Sussex).

Many birds will struggle to find food under drought conditions. The abundance of insects is reduced as many need open water, or damp conditions, to breed.

Songbirds, even ones like sparrows that are mainly seed-eaters as adults, rely on invertebrates to feed their young. If adult birds have to travel greater distances to find food and water, feeding rates diminish and the chicks can suffer from malnutrition, dehydration or exposure.

House martins and swallows, those iconic birds of summer, which use mud to build their nests, will struggle to find building material, reducing their nesting success.

Rob Cunningham added: “We’re pleased to see the Government taking the drought situation so seriously. But fundamentally, the system we have for allocating water, ensuring it’s not wasted and protecting the environment is nearly 50 years old and creaking at the seams.

“The Government’s recent Water White Paper has some excellent proposals for reform but their timescale suggests they won’t be in place until mid 2020’s when the pressure is being felt now.”