RECORD-BREAKING drought conditions have drained local wetlands of their lifeblood and will devastate entire ecosystems unless conditions improve rapidly, a conservationist has warned.
Gibraltar Point’s site manager Kev Wilson has revealed the impact that months of dry weather have had on the nature reserve’s delicately balanced habitats and rare wildlife species.
Last year’s annual rainfall was down by almost a third on average levels, resulting in a contracting of the brackish habitats and a 50 per cent reduction in the numbers of certain species of nesting birds.
Without an immediate improvement in water levels, Mr Wilson fears that some areas could dry up completely, decimating entire populations.
“The worst case scenario is that some of the lagoons could dry out leaving nothing but baked mud, dead fish, dead amphibians and we would lose the whole aquatic system,” he said.
The finely poised mixture of freshwater and brackish sea water, which makes Gibraltar Point an attractive environment for birds to feed, nest and rear their young, also makes it more susceptible to fluctuating climatic factors such as drought.
Years of human expansion into these areas to make way for arable farming, has diminished habitats and hampered their natural resilience to these sorts of problems.
Recently, conservationists have been attempting to reverse this trend by working with landowners to reclaim wetland, providing larger, more robust habitats.
Mr Wilson explained: “Larger areas of land give you more control over the hydrology and create big buffer zones to protect key areas.
“If you have a bigger area, there’s a better chance of holding on to more water and it’s more attractive to birds because they can stay better protected from predators which attack from the edges of wetlands.”
The severe shortage of rainfall over recent months is not only hampering these reclamation efforts but actively reducing the already undersized wet habitats.
Already Mr Wilson has seen the desiccation of grassland, reductions to wildlife and a shrinking of prime nesting sites, which has made it easier for foxes and badgers to prey on unguarded eggs.
As levels reduce further, water temperatures will rise and the resulting algal blooms could starve ponds and lagoons of oxygen, killing yet more species.
Decreased water pressure from the freshwater table inland also provides less resistance to encroaching seawater resulting in saltier water conditions which species such as dragonflies cannot survive in.
To resolve the issue Mr Wilson believes we need a steady trickle of rain continually over the next months to replenish the water levels and restore the habitat’s natural balance.
Given the unpredictable nature of recent weather patterns, which Mr Wilson has attributed to global warming, he fears that we are more likely to see torrential downpours such as in the floods of 2007.
“We need a slow steady trickle of rain to feed the aquifers but what we tend to get is torrential downpours falling onto hard baked ground that runs straight into the sea.”
Unless something happens soon, we could see far worse consequences than the hosepipe ban scheduled for early April.
Mr Wilson added: “Water is the lifeblood for everything.”