‘Unique’ autumn show predicted for UK trees – but decline may follow

<span>Photograph: Andrew Butler/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Butler/PA

After a year of extreme weather, a “unique” show of golden browns and buttery yellows could light up the UK’s trees in the next few weeks, a conservation charity has predicted, while warning that the impact of the climate emergency could threaten the show in autumns to come.

The National Trust said that some stressed trees had shed leaves early during a “false autumn” because of the summer’s exceptional heat and dryness but said that it, nonetheless, believed a particularly vivid October and November could be on the way.

Pamela Smith, senior national gardens and parks consultant at the trust, said the depth of colour would be reduced in some places where leaves had fallen early. But she said the summer’s high temperatures and drought could lead to an interesting different kind of autumn. “We may see more golden browns and yellows,” she said. “This year could be quite a unique display.”

Nothing is certain. The proviso is that trees needed to have built up enough sugars in their leaves in the spring to produce the vivid colours that the UK’s growing band of “leaf peepers” enjoy. The right combination of light, temperature – and a lack of wind – is needed for an extra special show.

Smith said: “Ideally over the next two weeks we need sunshine, rain, no strong winds and to see temperatures starting to dip. We’ll get the first indications of how good this year’s autumn colour will be in the north, as typically temperatures start to drop here first. It’s likely we will still see the full colour spectrum, but this year is a warning to us all of how what we’ve previously taken for granted may be at risk.”

John Deakin, the head of trees and woodlands, said trees were resilient, particularly the oldest ones, which have endured centuries of storms, droughts and winter frosts.

But he added: “Despite their potential to span millennia, trees will struggle to survive consecutive summers of searingly hot temperatures and not enough rain. The damage to their vascular system and energy reserves is cumulative and may reach crisis point, meaning we will see more trees starting to decline and die, and they’ll also be more susceptible to pests and disease.”

At Stourhead, one of the British gardens most celebrated for its dazzling October yellows and reds, head gardener Tim Parker said last year had not been a vintage one for autumn colour in the Wiltshire garden. “It was a bit of a flash, then everything held its leaves until December – an odd one.”

And he said there had also been some worrying losses this summer, including the death of two 15-year-old dawn redwoods, which may have succumbed to the extreme weather. “That was a real surprise but a lot of trees are showing the stress and the strain.”

However, when he showed the Guardian around this week, he could point out the softly changing hues of the candyfloss trees, the acers and beeches. “I love the changing of the seasons,” he said. “It’s one of the great things about living in this country. We’ve had a bit of rain and some good sun so far this autumn – a better leadup than last. I’ve got a feeling it could be a special one for us.”