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Microclimates

Harebells above Red TarnHarebells above Red Tarn

By Dyane Silvester

We British are known for talking about the weather; probably because it is so variable – and of course we all know how inaccurate our weather forecasts are.

Or are they? Have you ever considered that it might actually be virtually impossible to predict the weather accurately for every part of a landscape of mountains, valleys and coastal plains, cliffs and saltmarsh, urban and rural?

There are the frequent days when we can stand on the Cumbrian coast in sunshine and see the mountains shrouded in cloud; as warm wet air from the West reaches the higher land, it is pushed upwards and cools, forming the clouds (and rain) we are so familiar with, but what about smaller scale variations? Why is it so much wetter in Seathwaite than in Keswick?

Well although there are many variables, if you look at a map of the Lake District you'll note that any air coming in from the south west (the most common wind direction) will be pushed upwards over England's highest mountain immediately before it reaches Seathwaite so this village receives its full load of moisture. By the time the air reaches Keswick, it's already dropped the rain. Microclimates like this create niches where wildlife can survive which would not be there otherwise: Cumbria's peat bogs with their rich flora and fauna (think cotton grass, bog asphodel, sphagnum moss) could not exist without our rainfall.

There are many other microclimate examples. The urban heat island effect, where the temperature in cities and towns can be a degree or two warmer than in the surrounding rural area. This allows some unusual species to thrive – although hardly native, you can see palm trees in Barrow in Furness! This warmth also allows plants to flower earlier in the spring which in turn provides food for insects and birds, extending their breeding season. River or lake fogs are another example, where water evaporates from the warm surface and forms localised low-level clouds. Even something as basic as a hillside facing south rather than north provides enough difference in temperature for some plants to survive; a shallow hollow collects enough water for sundews to grow on an otherwise dry fellside.

So next time you're out and about, whether on the fells, or on a street in town, have a look around and see how many species you can find in localised areas. Can you work out why they are there?

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