Spring is back to normal – after 15 freak mild years

The severe winter means that we still have to wait a few weeks for the return of blossoms, buds and wildlife, writes Michael McCarthy

A A A

Spring begins today, Monday 1 March, and it is running about three weeks to a month late compared to recent years.

The coldest winter since 1981 has kept the natural world locked up tight, substantially setting back the blossoming of trees and spring flowers, and delaying the emergence of hibernating insects such as bumblebees, and red admiral and peacock butterflies.

Over the last 15 to 20 years, spring has advanced considerably because of the warming climate – according to the Met Office, Britain's average temperature has increased by a full degree centigrade since 1970 – and by mid-February in most years, blossom and spring flowers are in evidence, as well as butterflies on warm days.

But this year the natural world is only just awakening. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for example, the million or so Crocus tommasinianus which form a quite spectacular carpet of pale violet began to flower on Friday – whereas they were out in early February last year.

Similarly, Kew's spectacular display of daffodils is not yet in evidence, but this time last year the yellow blooms had been vivid for nearly a month. And Kew's snowdrops, which last year came out in January, made a February emergence in 2010.

The man who looks after Kew's grounds, the head of the arboretum, Tony Kirkham, doesn't see this as a late spring. He sees it as a normal one.

"Over the past 20 years we've got accustomed to it being very early, but this really is a normal year, in terms of the way things used to be," he said.

Mr Kirkham welcomed the freezing winter, as trees and plants shut down completely and "had a good rest", he said. He is also hopeful the freeze will have damaged one of Kew's major insect pests of recent years, the horse-chestnut leaf-miner moth, which came to Britain from eastern Europe and whose caterpillars now turn horse-chestnut leaves brown and dessicated long before the onset of autumn.

Mr Kirkham hopes the cold will have reduced the number of life-cycles the moth can go through in a year and brought down the stress on the trees.

The cold has certainly affected insects, according to Alan Stubbs, the chairman of Buglife, the invertebrate conservation charity. "Normally you might have expected to see some of the bumblebees, and some of the hibernating hoverflies by now, as well as some of the overwintering butterflies, but I haven't seen any of them yet," he said.

"Things that hibernate need to find sources of energy quickly when they come out, but there's nothing for them yet. It's only in the last few days that the worms in my compost heap have become active, but as regards flying harbingers of spring, there haven't been any so far."

Birds are not so quite dependent on the weather for starting their mating season, and some species are pairing up, while the earliest breeders of all, ravens, are already nesting in places such as the Lake Vyrnwy reserve in North Wales.

"Ravens will have laid eggs by now," said a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Grahame Madge. "Their early nesting is probably something to do with the fact that they are carrion feeders and there's more carrion around at the end of winter."

Crossbills, which feed on pine cones, are also starting to nest, but it will be another month or so before most songbirds begin their breeding cycle, and a few weeks more for migrants like swallows, cuckoos and nightingales.

The RSPB must wait to see which of Britain's birds will have been hardest hit by the severe winter, especially the snows and ice of early January, which prevented birds from finding food. "Kingfishers are the species which everybody is most worried about," Mr Madge said. "In the hard winters of 1947 and 1963 they went down by 85 per cent." Initial indications from observers were that the population might have been reduced by half, he said. There were also worries about bitterns, the very rare brown relative of the heron, and also about green woodpeckers and goldcrests.

The results of the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch survey, which will give a clear indication of what species have lost out most, will not be known for another month.

When does spring start?

*There are two opinions as to when spring starts: the meteorological one and the astronomical one.

The first, used by the Met Office and sanctioned by the World Meteorological Organisation, bases the seasons on the months of the calendar, in three-month blocks. Thus, winter is December, January and February, spring is the months of March, April and May, and so on.

This is now used all over the world so that climate statistics can be easily comparable across the globe.

But there is another, astronomical way of marking the seasons, using day length – with the equinoxes and solstices, those moments in the earth's annual progression around the sun when days are of equal length (the spring and autumn equinoxes), and when they are longest and shortest (the summer and winter solstices).

This year the spring, or vernal equinox, falls on Saturday 20 March, at 5.32pm Greenwich Mean Time.

So if conditions aren't warm enough for you today, or there's not enough blooming or buzzing or billing and cooing going on, you're perfectly at liberty to say spring doesn't really start for another three weeks.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible