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Climate change – or season creep?

Friday 28 August 2009

Australian scientists this week suggested that five or six seasons should be recognised in that vast country to more accurately cover different weather patterns. Our countryside commentator John Sheard believes that four is enough for Britain – but suspects they are slipping up the calendar.

LAST weekend, as Australian scientists were calling for five or even six seasons to the year, I took my strimmer to an overgrown corner of my allotment which I studiously avoided earlier because a pair of blackbirds were raising a brood in the hawthorn bush and a jenny wren was doing the same in the drystone wall below it.

The chicks have well-and-truly flown by now so it was time to do a bit of tidying up. And it was the ubiquitous hawthorn, arguably the most common bush in the UK, which stopped me in my tracks. Its berries, you see, were bright scarlet and – you could tell by the missing bits – were already under attack from the birds.

poWer lines

So what? I can hear readers ask. Well this was August 22 and those berries were almost past their best so they must have been fully ripe at least a week earlier, at the very height of summer. In the days of my youth they didn’t turn red until late in September or even early October – and there were still a few left on the branches to be feeding the birds at Christmas.

I know this because, as a child, I used to make peashooters from the hollow stems of cow parsley stalks and, for ammunition, used the green hawthorn berries: by the time they turned fully ripe, they had swelled too large to fit these wonderful free toys.

Whilst apologising for this fit of nostalgia, I should point out that kids in those days had to make their own fun in the countryside and, in doing so, learned a great deal of hands-on natural history. We were thinner, fitter and – I have no doubt – happier than today’s young generation huddled before their videos and computer games.

This is not a rant about modern technology – Daelnet pioneered the Internet in the Yorkshire Dales almost 20 years ago now. But I am trying to raise a point about the differences in the understanding of nature as gathered by a) people who have spent a lifetime observing it in the great outdoors or b) by many modern scientists who study it in their laboratories.

Many of the great discoveries of natural science were made by amateurs, often wealthy men like Charles Darwin, who studied nature more or less as a hobby. They had the time and the cash to go out and explore the world and study their findings at their leisure when they got back home.

Today’s modern scientists (in Britain at least) don’t have that sort of luxury and must spend much of their time handing round the hat to raise the funds to pay for their incredibly expensive equipment like electron microscopes, spectrometers and mega-computers. If they are lucky to be funded well enough to buy these expensive toys, it is no surprise that they want to play with them a lot. Indoors!

And this brings me to the point. There are many better qualified people than me who believe that climate change is a natural phenomenon caused by the position of our orbit of the sun, helped along perhaps but not caused totally by mankind’s insatiable use of fossil fuels. But they are barely listened to, if not actively vilified.

Those blood red berries were ripe at least six weeks earlier than they used to be

And I wonder if anyone, apart from me and my hawthorn berries, have ever considered the possibility that our seasons are not just changing in intensity but are also changing their calendars?

Those blood red berries were ripe at least six weeks earlier than they used to be. Supermarkets have selling English apples and pears for a month now when they used to come into season in September. In my allotment, autumn plants like Brussels sprouts and leaks are approaching their best. This weekend, I shall begin my winter digging over – and it will still be August if only just.

Most of the shooting and fishing seasons in this country were laid down in Victorian times to protect stocks during their breeding seasons. On the river I fish, the salmon season starts on February 1st but no-one I know has seen a fish that early (or should it be late?) for years.

The reason for that is that what we used to call the spring salmon have been seen going up river on Christmas Day, in the very heart of the closed season. I have taken sea-trout in mid-April, when they are not supposed to run until the end of May into June.

There is one similarity with all these peculiarities, including the fact that this summer’s hottest weather – in the Yorkshire Dales at least – came in June. All these events took place about a month to six weeks before their traditional timings.

So I wonder if any scientist has researched this odd possibility: the seasons are changing, creeping up earlier by a month or more, and, if so, why? I cannot claim to be an expert on such matters but these observations are based on half a century of being out and about in the countryside. If in the near future we are to have mid-summer at Easter, and pick daffodils at Christmas, shouldn’t someone tell us?

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