Will the summer be a disaster for the Westcountry?
We’ve just suffered the wettest June since records began and, as the rain continues, 2012 looks set to become the worst summer in over 150 years. Martin Hesp reports.
Dying wildlife, dropping visitor numbers and the danger of failing businesses… all are a grim reality in the Westcountry today thanks to the foul summer weather.
One regional tourism boss said that visitor numbers are 10-15% down on last year – and he declares we are suffering a "double whammy" and that the tourism industry is in "real trouble" if the gales and rain continue.
Which, ominously, meteorologists claim could well happen, at least for the next week. This week they have already announced that June was the wettest mid-summer month in more than 150 years, and the dullest in 103 years for parts of the Westcountry.
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Meanwhile, wildlife experts say they have witnessed one of the worst early summers ever – this has been particularly bad news for birds trying to raise young in wintry conditions.
Malcolm Bell, head of tourism at VisitCornwall, said: : "It's not a disaster yet, but the weather is having a big impact. There are two big reasons for that – first is that we are in the era of late bookings, so if you're only booking the week before you go, you can opt out if the weather looks bad.
"We've asked forecasters not to make glib comments about following weekends because it does have huge effect. People hear what they say and think – 'We'd better not take the chance.' We've said to weather forecasters – if you're not sure, don't say.
"The other thing is that in the Westcountry we have between one-and-a-half to two million local visitors – and you know what it's like if the weather's bad, you just don't go out.
"It is hurting – particularly businesses like campsites and some beach cafes."
But he was optimistic. "If there's a silver lining it's that tourism has proved to be resilient," Mr Bell said. "As soon as summer conditions return, people start arriving. If we get good weather in the next week or two then it will be a glitch and the visitors will return. But if this goes on until September, we've got big problems."
Lynmouth is the seaside resort closest to the second rainiest place in all of England, so it really ought to be used to a soaking – but it looked unusually forlorn one summer's day recently as yet another Atlantic gale brought in yet more horizontal precipitation.
A few tourists huddled down by the River Lyn which, 60 years ago this summer, caused the worst flood disaster in living British memory – but high above, in normally busy Lynton, not a single soul was to be seen.
I'd warned two American friends that Western Exmoor does hold that dubious honour of being second wettest place in the country (after the Lake District), but even these honest words of advice hadn't prepared them for the truth that is "Summer 2012".
The Americans looked at Lynton's empty lunchtime main-street and one said: "If this is your summer and this is a holiday resort, how do these businesses survive?"
It was a good question – given almost two months of foul, unseasonable, weather – but not one that came with many easy answers. How do they survive? How is the Westcountry's vital tourism industry coping with the summer from hell?
We'll get on to that in a moment, because at least no-one is perishing thanks to the miserable weather. Which is more than can be said for the region's wildlife. The Western Morning News has been contacted by members of Devon's Bird Watching and Preservation Society who have found countless dead baby birds in nests.
The extent of the damage has been revealed by the society's Devon Bird Atlas Group (DBAG), as it seeks to map the county's breeding activity for a new book.
The group's chairman, Stella Beavan, said: "We do ringing in nest boxes and I've seen a number of well-grown chicks that have died through being cold and wet. What happens is that mum and dad go out in the rain to get the next caterpillar and come back soaking wet.
"Obviously the young birds then get wet and they haven't yet formed feathers so have no protection from the cold."
She added that bad weather conditions also meant it was difficult for birds to find food.
But perhaps worst hit have been birds that live on rivers. "The dippers nest under overhanging things like bridges and branches – so if water levels rise they are in trouble," she added. "And Kingfishers nest in burrows in steep-sided banks – so flooding can be disastrous for them."
Even large birds of prey can be hit when bad weather coincides with the breeding season – the DBAG has monitored a peregrine nest in the Plymouth area where this year's fledglings have perished.
The findings are similar for experts at Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT), where one researcher has been studying songbirds in and around the Bovey Valley.
DWT spokesman Stephen Hussey said: "The weather causes chilling of young in the nest and a shortage of insect prey – so the young are vulnerable to twin threats: either hypothermia or starvation, or a cruel combination of both. Blue tits and great tits have suffered in particular.
"Both feed their young on caterpillars to a large extent. They also tend to be single brooded and so the timing of the cold and wet has had a particularly adverse effect. A 60%-plus failure rate of both species' nests is estimated for this one area of Devon."
He went on to say that in moorland areas like Dartmoor National Park, where pied flycatchers had nested at higher altitudes, an alarming nine out of 11 broods had failed.
And Mr Hussey said that staff at DWT were also fearing a bad year for the region's glow worms.
"We're running a glow-worm campaign this summer asking members of the public to send us their glow-worm sightings," he said. " So far we've received comparatively few (approximately 30 sightings) and I think the bad weather has contributed to this. Females glow to attract flying mates but if the weather is poor the males don't fly."
Needless to say, delicate creatures like butterflies have faced problems in the wind and rain. Liam Creedon, a spokesman for the charity Butterfly Conservation, said: "The major findings from our various surveys don't come in until the end of the year, but it does look like it's going to be a bad year for butterflies. They could suffer population crashes later this year or next spring unless weather conditions improve dramatically. Prolonged cold, wet weather delays emergence periods, reduces butterflies' lifespan and hampers mating and egg- laying, leading to fewer offspring."
Back in the world of tourism, even big operators like the National Trust, which has many indoor attractions, are feeling the pinch. Allan King, for the charity in the South West, said: "Our visitor numbers are lower than last year, obviously particularly affecting some of the outdoor places.
"It has been an extremely stormy year. We have had to close some of our gardens when wind speeds have been high enough to create a risk of damage to trees," said Mr King.
"Obviously, bits of branches breaking off is dangerous so we have to close and even our gardeners have to leave until the winds die down. We had some closures in the June storm a few weeks ago and others earlier in the year."
He added: "Some of our properties are responding to the difficult weather by increasing opening times."
Perhaps there are ways for the tourism industry to adapt to the summer from hell, or at least to assuage its corrosive effects. But it's another matter for wildlife. If the bad summers continue we could lose some of our best-known species.