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Daffs in November: Mother Nature in turmoil

Friday 16 November 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard ponders the implications of spring plants flowering in autumn and wonders if this is bad as the doom mongers insist. Are the seasons merely slipping?

IT IS not unusual for me to buy the wife a bunch of flowers - honest! - but yesterday (Thursday) I brought home a bunch of daffodils. Half way through November! And they shouldn't be out before the end of February at the very earliest and only in their prime towards the end of March.

On Wednesday, strolling on the towpath of the Leeds-Liverpool canal is it loops through the southern Yorkshire Dales, the mallards were at it doing the "birds-and-bees" stuff when February 14th in supposed to be the time when birds start mating. This is why it was dubbed St Valentine's Day by out ancestors.

Daffs in November: Mother Nature in turmoil
Daffs in November: Mother Nature in turmoil
Photo: WTPL/Bridget Barnard

The mallard drakes were still in their brilliant emerald and purple plumage when - a little known nugget of natural history, this - they should by now be in their dull brown winter outfit, which makes them virtually undistinguished from their female mates. Pondering this, I checked my emails and there was a press release from the Woodland Trust which could have written this column for me .

Headlined "This year's bizarre autumn shows climate change in action" it went on: "As trees across the UK are coming into full colour, Nature's Calendar1 has received sightings from across the UK of plants flowering in autumn.

"These quirks of nature include daffodils in Devon and Cardiff, primroses flowering across the UK from Surrey and Hampshire up to Inverness and the Moray Firth. There are crab apple trees flowering in Nottingham, elder and foxgloves in full bloom in Somerset, apple blossom in West Sussex and Northamptonshire, and wild strawberries in Cardiff and Carmarthen.

"Pond life is active with recordings including dragonflies mating, reports of live tadpoles in Fife and young newts in Edinburgh. All of these are traditionally considered to be spring events, the only question is, are they really late or really early?"

Dr Kate Lewthwaite from the Woodland Trust explains: "With such mild weather it seems that some plants have been fooled into the flowering cycle for a second time. Unfortunately it is unlikely that the plants will fruit again as it will be too cold. Plants react to the current weather and as such aren't aware that winter is just around the corner. In the case of the tadpoles and dragonflies the mild conditions have been favourable to allow them to survive."

Now I have the greatest admiration for the Woodland Trust, which manages thousands of acres of deciduous forest across Britain - including the much-used Skipton Woods around the town's ancient castle - and I particularly like the choice of the words "climate change" rather than "global warming" in their report.

I have absolutely no doubt the climate is changing but am far from convinced that it is changing because of human activity

I have absolutely no doubt the climate is changing but am far from convinced that it is changing because of human activity as the doom-mongers preach day in, day out. Take, for instance, the salmon fishing season, set by the Victorians (like many of the laws which protect our wildlife) to protect the species during its vital spawning season.

It runs from February 1 to October 31 yet, in the 35 years I have fished the salmon (with very little success, I might say) the so-called "spring run" of fish arrives in about July when the so-called "autumn run" should be about to start. Yet a friend of mine regularly monitors large runs passing under the famous Devil's Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale on Christmas Day.

The same happens in my veg patch. Spring barely exists most years; it is either winter or summer. Autumn is by far the best time to harvest veg and in recent years, autumn has continued until Christmas.

In other words, the seasons seem to be slipping, starting later each year and continuing longer. Sure, winters are getting milder, but the worst weather in recent years has been in March when, officially, spring arrives. There are many top scientists through the world who believe this is a regular cycle, caused by the movements of the sun. All we need to do is take our summer holidays in October!

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