Living Uplands

Natural History of Upper Weardale


By Ken Cook and Ian Findley: the Editor's Synopsis

The Pennines are unique in England as the only significant upland area not close to the sea, with climatic implications.

Image: Weardale Weather (c) Ian Turner

The high hills (up to 740 m AOD at the source of the Wear) maintain wet and cool conditions in the upper Dale and cast a rain shadow, creating drier conditions to the east. Yet gales from the north and east can bring heavy rain, and snow in the winter. This chapter describes the prevailing weather and climate of Weardale, changes that include warming and the impact of such on wildlife and farming.

The weather and climate of Upper Weardale compares closely with that of Upper Teesdale – it can be very cold, wet, windy and suddenly changeable. Data from weather stations at Westgate, Stanhope and Copley show changing patters over the 30 years to 2010. In that time, Copley has recorded the more snow on an average basis than Widdybank Fell in Upper Teesdale and ranks the 5th snowiest place in Britain (the top 4 being in Scotland). More detailed weather data, collected at Copley from 2001 to 2010 show variations lower down the valley and highlight the wide variations that affect the farming season and survival of wildlife. Extreme weather events can be very extreme in Upper Weardale and surrounding uplands! And global changes are impacting her as elsewhere, bringing wetter, milder winters, more uncertain weather patterns and extremes.

Subsequent to publication of the Natural History of Upper Weardale, Ian Findlay offers additional recent information from his daily recording at Hunt Hall Farm, Langdon Beck and data from surveys over the last 47 years in the upper dales of Baldersdale, Lunedale, Teesdale and Weardale.

Weather patterns in the Upper Dale on the Pennines have changed in the past 20 years, especially during 2015 – 2020.

The broad impact on nature is explained below, by way of example relative to this weather chart for 2020.

February 2020 had a very heavy rainfall, but April and May were very dry. These 3 months caused the biggest problems for the farming and wildlife communities. Breeding numbers for all waders were very low, only c50% of chicks survived due to lack of food. Vegetation developed later than normal because of the wet February and cold ground, meaning a slow start to grass growth for sheep and suckler cows and then poor silage and hay crops in July and Autumn (needed for winter feed).

The late season also resulted in delayed appearance of rare plants in flower and fewer of them. Moths and butterflies had a late start to their reproductive year because of the early cold, wet ground and low numbers persisted through the season. These and the larvae of other insects are important food for waders and grouse, so poor weather had a further knock-on effect.

2020 saw the 4th highest rainfall since 2000.

For the last 5 to 6 years there has been much change affecting wildlife and farming. Sadly, data suggests a decline in breeding upland birds and botanical species over the last 3 years. Yet milder conditions have led to eruptions of field vole populations. What nature gives, it takes.

Charts within the chapter provide detailed illustration of trends.

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