Ecologist Paul Wilkinson tells us what you can see out and about on our waterways after the floods.
The winter floods will affect waterway wildlife in many different ways. Some of the British species most vulnerable from the extreme flooding are likely to be those who hibernate on or near the ground, such as hedgehogs and dormice. It can't be very pleasant to be underground either, like our foxes and badgers, who can move to dryer grounds, although this can place them in conflict with other animals' territories.
Many birds will be able to fly to new areas and some wetland birds will be positively thriving with the amount of new feeding areas and soft ground to find invertebrates. However, the flooded ground could also be reducing the amount of seeds and ground insects that our resident ground feeding birds require, especially as we approach spring and the nesting seasons. Although we haven’t been actively monitoring, it seems that our brambling (a ground feeding bird who mostly eats seeds) populations are lower than we’d expect. In regards to insects in the ground, the excessive flooding is likely to benefit mosquitoes and midges who prefer stagnant and isolated water- we really need an army of bats this spring to eat them!
Otters, being aquatic and very wide ranging, probably are the most well-adapted of our mammals to cope with the flooding, although the loss and subsequent search for new holts (otter homes) could force them into other otters' territories, causing conflicts.
How they behave in extreme events is little studied, possibly due to such extreme events being so infrequent. It could mean that otters forget their differences whilst there is so much water around, or that the reduced water area is likely to make them defend their areas more aggressively.
Otters do defend large territories, this is one reason why anglers shouldn’t be worried about the return of our enigmatic otter, they will maintain a low density population based on very large areas, defending these areas to ensure that their prey (which includes a wide range of species) is sustainable.
Otters have not as yet out-competed their smaller introduced cousin, the North American mink, although impacts from mink are now greatly reduced or at least less reported. It seems that our established mink are now at much lower densities than during the 1990s, possibly as those animals who were released from fur farms have now passed away due to old age, and their offspring are at lower level due to pressure and competition from both the return of the otter, and the polecat.
There has even been a local increase or stabilising of water vole populations on some canals. It is hoped that our water voles have made it through the worst levels of predation by mink and perhaps have a more positive future now, but we can never be complacent. There are still huge holes in their population to fill, until we get back to a level that used to be so familiar along the water side during the 80s and 90s.
On a final note, Kingfishers could be up in numbers this year. The extra water everywhere could have made finding their prey more difficult. However, the mild weather has been a positive for them (as one of the major limits on their populations is cold winters), and so far we have had a mild winter. The extra power of water in our rivers has also carved out new river banks, possibly increasing their opportunities to find a suitable nesting sites this spring.
One of the most damaging consequences of flooding to Kingfishers and birds nesting near water is that of flooding during their nesting seasons, which generally starts in mid-April. What we have to remember is that nature can be very resilient and can often cope with these events providing that they do not occur too frequently.
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