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Is this global warming - or just shifting seasons?

Friday 10 June 2005

In a week when the global warming row heated up, our countryside commentator John Sheard reflects on a rich hatch of mayfly and asks: are the seasons changing - or just moving along?

THE global warming debate, already pretty hot, reached boiling point this week with scientists calling for a worldwide action plan, President Bush rejecting a plea from Tony Blair to cut greenhouse gases, and calls for TV botanist Prof David Bellamy to be sacked from a top environmental body because of his "heretical" views.

Now I am neither a physicist nor a climatologist but I have always been something of a sceptic. The belief that global warming is man made is the current mantra of the politically correct apart from the odd expert - like Prof. Bellamy - who say if it may be happening but it is a natural phenomenon which has been repeated many times over the millennia.

The Mayfly – changing seasons?

My natural suspicions are also heightened by the fact that, some 15 years ago, I was writing grim doom and gloom stories about the ice-age which would soon be gripping Britain. That was the fashionable theory of its time - and see what happened to that.

I am, however, a man who has spent much of his life in the outdoors, observing nature at close quarters and with a keen interest - as were many of the great Victorian amateur naturalists who virtually founded their science.

And this week, I found myself admiring a huge hatch of Mayflies doing their exotic mating dance above not a trout stream, as I would expect, but over my allotment.

Now there are many types of Mayfly, and this was a new one to me with an upwardly arced tail a glittering bronze colour, but they all belong to a family of insects called the ephemerids which, sadly, means that for them, life is short (but I hope sweet).

Their mothers lay eggs in water and the hatching insect spends the next two or three years grubbing about underwater. Then, one sunny day, they metamorphosise, grow long tails and shiny iridescent wings, and fly into space to do their mating dance.

In this state, they do not even have mouths. Once mating is complete, the males die. The females find just enough time to lay their now fertilised eggs of water and they too join their late mates.

Now I don't tell this sad tale to bring tears to the eyes. What struck me this week that these lovely creatures are called Mayflies - yet they were doing their mating dance over my veg patch well into June. Why?

As a fisherman and a gardener, I have absolutely no doubt that our seasons have changed dramatically in the past thirty years or so. My legal salmon fishing season, for instance, opens on February 1 and closes on October 31.

These dates were set in Victorian times to coincide with the spring and autumn runs of the salmon arriving in our rivers. Now, the spring run has virtually disappeared and the autumn run is getting later and later.

An expert angling friend of mine stood on a bridge over the River Lune on a recent Christmas Day watching a huge run of salmon rushing upstream to their mating redds, exactly half way through our closed season when spawning is more or less thought to be over.

In recent years, judging by my allotment, spring has almost disappeared as a reason: we have a long, wet, miserable winter and suddenly, as happened this week, summer arrives. However, my crops have not suffered overmuch because our autumns have got much long and milder - two years ago, we had not suffered one frost before February.

So are we really having global warming - or have our seasons just moved on whilst our calendars have remained static? If so, lets hope we can look forward to a wonderful summer - in September - and straight from the vine runner beans with our Christmas Day turkey. Have a nice spring weekend...

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