The man who unlocked the secrets of the new seasons of climate change may have to leave his job because of government cutbacks. Tim Sparks has led the way in demonstrating that the plants and animals were already responding to global warming, before people were even aware of the problem.
The environmental statistician fathered a revival in the study of the timings of natural events, such as the leafing of trees, the nesting of birds and the emergence of insects – all of which are being altered by rising atmospheric temperatures. The findings figured prominently in the most recent report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as evidence that climate change was really happening.
But the forthcoming closure of the wildlife research centre where Dr Sparks works means he may shortly be unemployed. It would be a bizarre ending to the career of a man who made what may come to be seen as one of the great scientific discoveries.
Dr Sparks's work has highlighted the immense transformation of nature in the past 30 years, as the world has started to warm up. Spring is starting earlier, and autumn later. In between the two, winter is being squeezed into a smaller and smaller period.
In southern England, oak leaves are sprouting 26 days before they did in 1950. Swallows, house sparrows, great tits and robins are laying their eggs a week earlier on average. Lesser celandines, commonly thought of as the first spring plant, are flowering three weeks earlier than in the 1950s, with poppies a fortnight ahead of where they used to be, and stinging nettles 10 days ahead.
Some butterflies are also showing changes – brimstones and orange tips, generally thought of as the first butterflies of spring, have advanced their emergence dates by about a fortnight, while the red admiral, which used to be a summer migrant from the Continent, has started to over-winter in Britain and can now be seen in January. Even frogspawn is being laid 12 days earlier than it used to be.
Before the mid-1990s, no one had any idea that all these shifts were happening. Dr Sparks's achievement was to revive the scientific discipline of phenology, or the study of the timing of natural events, which was favoured by the Victorians, but which by the 1950s had been largely abandoned.
Dr Sparks, a statistician at the Monks Wood wildlife research centre, near Huntingdon, part of the Government's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, brought phenology back by retrieving old records of tree-leafing and bird-nesting dates, against which modern observations could be compared – and by setting up a new national phenology network of volunteer recorders.
This has now been taken over by the Woodland Trust, which runs it (with Dr Sparks's collaboration) as Nature's Calendar, with 40,000 people contributing from all over Britain.
However, Dr Sparks may soon be out of a job due to swingeing cuts at the centre. Its three leading wildlife research stations, Monks Wood, Winfrith in Dorset and Banchory, near Aberdeen are being scrapped. The latter two have already gone; a precise date has not yet been set for the closure of Monks Wood, but it is expected to happen this year.