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The swallows are here – but what about the spring?

Friday 29 April 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard laments the disappearance of what used to be his favourite season – spring – and asks: is global warming already with us?

WHEN I first moved to the Yorkshire Dales some 18 years ago and resumed a long career in writing about the countryside and environmental issues, the world’s top scientists were warning that we were about to face a new Ice Age.

In my allotment this week, I thought it had arrived: bitter winds from the north and east, soaking rain laced with hail that actually strung when it hit your face, and most of my young plants wilting in dismay because their tiny roots are trying to bore their way into something which is more bog than veg patch.

What was for virtually all my life my favourite season of the year, spring, seems to have disappeared. We now have winter and then summer with little in the middle.

Snow in the Dales

And all this, the scientists now say, is caused not by a looming Ice Age but by global warming. Well, my struggling brassicas could do with some of that right now, thank you very much.

If you think I’m confused, think of those two storks blown across the Channel which have started nesting in West Yorkshire – the first pair to do so since 1461, according to the British Trust for Ornithology.

Just to add to the misery, the long-range weather forecast is that the whole of May is likely to continue in much the same vein, so we shall be dancing round the Maypole soaked to the skin and teeth chattering in time with the music. Not much of a fertility rite, when you think about it.

Not that I have much faith in weather forecasts, by the way, but they do seem to get it right more often when they are predicting doom and gloom rather sunshine and light. The weather, however, is very important to the Yorkshire Dales. Much to the sadness of many tourism officials, the majority of our visitors come here on day trips and, for those, good weather is the deciding factor.

For the farmers, of course, the weather is crucial: young lambs, which were often born when snow was on the ground yet survived, are prone to serious illness in damp, cold conditions. And sodden fields are easily churned up by livestock hooves and – dare I say it? – hikers’ boots.

All this said, there must surely be some good things to look forward to this coming summer. Surely, all these rain clouds must conceal some silver linings? And, indeed, there are.

For a start, the reservoirs are full when – I know this is difficult to believe – at the beginning of the year, Yorkshire Water officials were secretly worried that we might be facing another summer of hosepipe bans or even standpipes in the streets. Death to my veg!

Another is that despite a series of non-springs, summers are getting warmer and, here in Yorkshire, we stand to gain more than most. It is predicted that as southern England takes on a Mediterranean climate, some species of plants – and even mature trees – will begin to die out.

Yet in the North, a slight warming is already bringing in rare wildlife species – and I am not talking about those Euro-storks. I have already seen a lesser spotted woodpecker which, until a few years ago, rarely strayed as far north as the Midlands, never mind Yorkshire.

But the biggest bonus for me, and there must be many like me, is that my new favourite season of the year is … autumn.

For the past five years or so, autumn has lasted almost until Christmas. This really is a season of mellow fruitfulness nowadays, with crops that curl up and die at the first hint of frost fruiting still on Bonfire Night.

For the first time in 30-odd years of growing my own veg, I still have some of last year’s leeks in the allotment whilst I am taking the first asparagus of the year. This means I have the harvest of autumn, winter and what used to be spring in my garden all at the same time.

So global warming may not be all bad – in the Dales at least. So keep the brolly with you. Don’t cast any clouts until May is out. And cheer up. It will be summer soon – the swallows are here as well as the storks.

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