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Is this the new Christmas card?

PUBLISHED: 09:08 12 March 2016

Last year, Daffodils made an early appearance and were in flower in December

Last year, Daffodils made an early appearance and were in flower in December

© Dejan Kolar

With bees on the wing on Christmas Day and birds in song a month early, Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England looks at the impact of our shifting seasons

As March arrives we can look forward to the Easter holiday, with its spring weather, blooms and blossom. Or can we? The Met Office tells us that snow is now more likely at Easter than at Christmas, and with daffodils in bloom last Christmas, what can we look forward to in spring? Perhaps greetings cards designers need to review their traditional depictions of these festivals?

Last November, although not very sunny, saw both the highest-ever temperature recorded in the UK for the month, and the warmest UK November night on record. The unseasonal weather continued into December, when the average UK temperature for the month as a whole was 7.9C, the highest recorded by the Met Office since its records began in 1910 (breaking the 1934 December record by 1 degree).

These temperatures occurred when the unusually deep and slow-moving depressions brought record levels of rain to parts of northern England and also dragged up more than usual amounts of warm air from near the tropics. The strong El Niño which built up in the Pacific during 2015 is thought to be the cause – its shift in ocean currents having a knock-on effect in the Arctic and in the position of the jet stream which drives the UK’s weather.

Impact on wildlife

So as Christmas approached there were very unseasonal sightings of insects (I saw a bumble bee in my garden on Christmas Day) and snowdrops, daffodils and many trees and shrubs in flower. Blackbirds in full voice in the first week of the new year were a whole month ahead of the norm and out in the woods in early January bluebell leaves were already several inches high. I also saw hawthorn leaves emerging and white deadnettle and blackthorn in flower. Hedgehogs were reported to be emerging from hibernation and having trouble finding adequate food.

In Britain we are used to being at a crossroads in the world’s weather. During a typical spell of mild weather fast-moving depressions bring wind and rain from the south-west every few days, with brighter drier weather in between. From time to time warm or cold air masses establish themselves over the country bringing more settled conditions. In extreme cases and especially when these persist we experience weather which enters the national narrative, such as the long cold winter of 1962-3, the drought year of 1976 and the intense cold of January 1982, when the lowest English temperature on record of minus 27.2C was recorded in Shropshire.

As I write in early January a colder spell is forecast, so we must wait to see how this impacts our flowers and wildlife. Wide-awake species normally in hibernation at this time of year will be hit by cold weather and struggle to find food. Early fruit blossom may be destroyed by frost or there may be no pollinators to initiate fruiting, so crops could be affected. On the other hand, bulbous plants like daffodils and bluebells are remarkably tough – they are able to rebound from late snowfalls when they are in flower.

Longer-term we may have to get used to daffodils at Christmas. There is no doubt our climate (an expression of average weather over long periods) is warming; 2014 was the warmest year the country has experienced since Met Office records began (central England was the warmest since records dating to 1659) and last year was not far behind.

If mild winters continue it is likely that more insects including bees will remain active all year instead of going into hibernation. Gardeners can help these insects by planting winter-flowering plants, which provide the nectar and pollen these creatures need. Good nectar sources are winter-flowering cherry, winter honeysuckle, several clematis species and Oregon grape (Mahonia). Lower-growing nectar providers include snowdrops, crocus, primroses, cyclamen, lungwort, hellebores and winter-flowering heathers.

Hedgehog numbers have declined dramatically in recent years, so if they are active in gardens in winter they may be underweight and in need of food: meat-based tinned dog or cat food is ideal for them, but avoid anything fishy. Water in a shallow bowl will help keep them hydrated, but never give them milk.

Dramatic effects

Could Hertfordshire experience the type of flooding which devastated parts of the country either side of Christmas? Never say never, but the county is less prone to serious flooding than many places, not least because south-east England receives less rain. Weather data for the period 1981-2010 from the recording station at Rothamsted in Harpenden show that on average December rainfall was 2.56 inches, while average rainfall for the whole year was 28.03 inches. On Honister Pass in Cumbria last December during storm Desmond 13.43 inches of rain fell in one 24-hour period, a new UK record.

To find outmore about how our seasons are changing, visit naturescalendar.org.uk, where you can also contribute your own sightings of seasonal wildlife events.

Whatever the weather this spring, don’t forget to get out into Hertfordshire’s lovely countryside. Visit cpreherts.org.uk for details of its Walk of the Month.

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