Why the birds and bees think spring is here

Our flora and fauna are defying the calendar like never before. David Randall reports on unseasonal developments across the UK
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You can tell it's December. The bumblebees are dancing on the flowers, the frog spawn is filling the ponds, and the cherry blossom hangs heavy on the branch. This, so far, is the winter that never was.

All around Britain, another season of extraordinary mildness is producing phenomena that seem positively unnatural. On a roundabout in Oxfordshire blooms a carpet of daisies, from the Home Counties come reports of bumblebees raising a new generation, from a Kent churchyard there is news of lesser celandine in flower, normally a February bloom, and, in the East Midlands, newts have been seen returning to ponds.

These reports are from the UK Phenology Network, whose 12,000 recorders monitor such "events". As long as two weeks ago, the network's volunteers were reporting the first primrose of "spring", in Crawley, West Sussex; rooks nesting; snowdrops blooming in Hampshire before November was out; and frog spawn in Pembrokeshire, Britain's earliest ever sighting. Global warming means our flora and fauna are defying the calendar as never before.

The far-from-bleak season is evident in gardens, too. Daffodils are flowering in Cumbria; rose bushes in Hampshire still have full blooms; summer bedding like fuschia and pelargoniums are still going; and in London, shrubs such as hebe remain in flower, perennials such as nepeta show full flower spikes, and January bloomers such as winter jasmine have been smothered in canary yellow for weeks.

In Scotland, David Mitchell, curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, says: "I'm seeing trees that have only just dropped their leaves, I'm seeing shrubs coming into bud, and we haven't had a frost worth the name." Mr Mitchell attributes these strange signs to abnormally high soil temperatures, due to high atmospheric humidity and a lack of frost.

It was not supposed to be like this. In October, heavy crops of berries, plus an influx of waxwings (finch-like birds from Scandinavia), inspired doom-mongers and folklorists to predict that Britain was in for a fearfully cold winter.

Nick Collinson, conservation policy advisor for the Woodland Trust, key partners in UK Phenology, says global warming is far from an unmitigated blessing. "Quite apart from the plants that need frosts to crack open their seed cases and so germinate, things can get out of synch. A moth that depends on young oak leaves for its food might be able to adapt swiftly, given the oak leaves have appeared in time, but can the great tit that feeds its young on those moths' caterpillars?"

He points out that some animals only hibernate when temperatures dip below a certain mark. With autumn fruits coming earlier these days, a dormouse, for instance, may eat all its food before colder weather triggers hibernation. What does it do then? Humans, it seems, are not the only ones confused by our topsy-turvy seasons.


Bumblebees have been spotted in the Home Counties over-wintering and feeding the young of an autumn nest


Scandinavian waxwings have arrived in force, but, contrary to folklore, this does not herald a hard winter


Daffodils are well advanced all over the country, and, in one Cumbrian garden, have even burst into bloom


Newts, which usually spend winter on land, have been seen returning to some ponds in the East Midlands


The first primrose sighting of 'spring' was reported two weeks ago by observers in West Sussex


Nature-watchers in Pembrokeshire this month recorded Britain's earliest ever sighting of frog spawn