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‘These days the four seasons are a mush and nothing is doing what it should be’

We can all remember crisp winter snow, hopeful springs, endless summer days and kicking through autumn leaves on the way to school.

The four seasons in our minds are neatly quartered like a harvest apple.

But these days they’re a mush.

When it comes to our weather, nothing is doing what it should, sending nature – and us – haywire.

This week we’ve seen record temperatures in Canada, with a high of 49.6C in Lytton, British Columbia.

Closer to home, the independent Climate Change Committee warned many species of UK flora and fauna will be wiped out by the end of the century if temperatures keep rising.

It said 75% of upland species like mountain hares and lapwing will be under threat by 2100, along with 30% of coastal species, 45% of woodland species and 40% of wetland species.

Rising floodwaters in East Cowick, northern England in March 2020 after Storm Jorge

Climate change can seem abstract. But the purpose of my new book, Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons, is to map the impact of these increasingly unfamiliar weather patterns.

This spring, for example, was marked by the frostiest April for 60 years and a soaking wet start to May, upending the routine of blue tits.

I’ve pursued a branch of science known as phenology, which looks at how weather shapes the natural world.

It notes the passage of seasons through everything from insects hatching to when birds nest.

Here, I examine how animals and plants are struggling to keep up with the pace of change…

Spring

Spring is being sprung ever earlier with some of the UK's native flowers blooming months before they used to, evidence from Kew Garden suggests
Spring is being sprung ever earlier with some of the UK’s native flowers blooming months before they used to

Spring is now arriving earlier and moving faster through the country.

One study, published by researchers at Coventry University, found that between the late 19th century and 1947, spring moved up the country at about 1.2mph, travelling 28 miles per day.

It would have taken nearly three weeks for the whole country to be in full spring.

But according to the 2015 study, it now travels at 1.9mph, covering 45 miles per day, and can be considered fully “sprung” 11 days earlier than in the 1800s.

At Kew Gardens in South West London, the daffodils now come into bloom on average several weeks earlier than they did in
the 1980s.

Elsewhere in the country, bluebells are also flowering roughly two to three weeks earlier than they were 30 years ago.

Migratory birds such as swallows are arriving two weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago, while others are simply staying put.

A study of great tits at Wytham Woods, in Oxfordshire, where scientists have monitored populations since 1947, has found they are now laying their eggs on average two weeks earlier than half a century ago.

Summer

A packed Bournemouth beach during an unseasonal heatwave
A packed Bournemouth beach during an unseasonal heatwave

In 2018, the Met Office published its first study of climate extremes in the UK. The report found heatwaves are now lasting twice as long as they did 50 years ago and severe rainfall is increasing.

According to the report, seven of the 10 wettest years for the UK had occurred since 1998. Both 2019 and 2020 will also now be in the top 10.

Over the past decade summers have been 20% wetter than between 1961 and 1990. Top temperatures are also far higher and records will continue to be broken. From 1961 to 1990, the average longest warm spell each year was 5.3 days. From 2008 to 2017, it was 13.2.

There is also an increased risk of wildfires, such as the blaze on Saddleworth Moor in 2018 which led to 1,000 hectares being destroyed, with the number of baking days climbing each year.

Summer migrant birds are being severely affected by climate change too.

Much-loved species such as cuckoos, turtle doves and nightingales are all in steep decline.

Autumn

Swallows preparing for their migration at Ballidon
Swallows preparing for their migration at Ballidon

The growing season in England is around a month longer than it was 50 years ago. That means farmers are able to grow their crops later in the season.

There have also been reports of autumn fruits and nuts ripening earlier.

In 2019 the Woodland Trust Nature’s Calendar project recorded the first ripe blackberry being discovered on August 6 – long before animals need it for fattening up for winter. If those berries are unavailable later in the season, it can mean animals do not have enough to survive the winter.

During autumn migration some species of birds that traditionally come here from the Far North during the colder months are now not bothering to make the trip.

Sightings of Bewick’s swan, for example, which traditionally heralded winter, declined by 88% between 1994-2019 as they preferred not to cross the North Sea.

Swallows have also been over-wintering in the south-west of Britain instead of returning to southern Africa.

Winter

Ring-necked parakeets are sit in trees as snow continues to fall in St James Park
Ring-necked parakeets are sit in trees as snow continues to fall in St James Park

Snowy winters could soon be a thing of the past.

According to recent Met Office analysis, if global emissions continue to accelerate, by the 2040s most of southern England would not experience freezing temperatures. By the 2060s snow would only be found on high ground and in northern Scotland.

Already, there have been reports of frogspawn in November and adders coming out of hibernation on Boxing Day, when historically they do not emerge until March. Dormice are struggling to cope with warmer, wetter winters which coax them out of hibernation early only to discover there is no food available.

Other species are faring better. Blackcaps, long-tailed tits and ring-necked parakeets, for example, are all on the increase.

More flowers are also coming into unseasonal bloom – a record 710 different plant species were found to be in bloom in January, compared to 615 last year and 627 in 2019.

  • Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons (Bloomsbury Wildlife) by Joe Shute, out now.



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