Nature 2004 February

The Weather, Nature’s Alarm Clock, Provides a Wake-up Call

This being the first Nature Notes for 2004, I will start with a brief look back on the more noteworthy weather statistics for The Hilltop Villages in 2003. January provided the lowest temperatures of last year with -8.5°C on 12th. In contrast, August 10th will go down as the hottest day, 36.3°C in these parts . By the way the all-time national record is now held by Brogdale near Faversham, Kent which recorded 38.5°C on the same day. The windiest day was 12th March with gusts up to 21mph. November was the wettest month with over 4 ins, one quarter of which fell on 22nd alone, whilst the yearly rainfall figure was in total just over 20ins A modest amount when one realises that the Lake District typically has over 70ins. In any case what has a bearing on crop yields is not so much the amount, but rather when the falls, and in common with the rest of SE England last summer was exceptionally dry. As a consequence the water table is still falling around these parts, possibly made even worse by additional extraction by the water companies.

Now looking ahead I thought for a change I would bravely attempt some weather forecasting, based on my local records! February will start out with temperatures around 5-7°C but could reach 13-14°C towards the end of the month. Watch out for a cold snap with night-time temperatures maybe down to -7°C around the second week of February and we could even have some snowfall around mid February. Not surprisingly, strong winds will again dominate the middle two weeks of March. Overall whilst February will see much less rain than we saw in January, March will be much wetter and with that wind will be particularly inclement at times.

Perhaps more than at any other time of the year our wildlife is dependant on the change in weather in order to be kick-started into action. One of the first hints of nature awakening will probably be snowdrops (wild not cultivated) flowering (21st Feb), followed by primroses and lesser celandines (28th Feb). Our trees take a fortnight longer than those in the Vale to burst bud but you might see the hazel in flower by early-mid March, followed swiftly by the vivid green of the hawthorn and then the elder. Overwintering bees are often tricked by a few days of warmer weather into making their first forays around 26th February only to be caught by a cold snap a few days later. Hibernating butterflies, such as the peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and comma will make their first appearance around 23rd March.

Listen out for squirrels even noisier than usual as they star pairing up. Birdsong has already changed; triggered not by temperature but by the increasing day length. The shrill notes of garden birds such as robins, wrens and dunnocks can be heard staking out there territories. But to survive they must feed almost continuously from dawn to dusk and a heavy frost will take a heavy toll amongst the smaller birds, reducing their body heat beyond a fatal level. Climatic changes as well as changing land use have significantly altered the numbers and proportions of our commonest birds in gardens and countryside over the last 10 years. Greenfinches and chaffinches, blue and great tits, collared doves and woodpigeons have increased steadily. Meanwhile the losers have been the insect eaters such as the starlings, blackbirds, thrushes and robins. To do your bit, try to leave at least part of your garden unkempt. Leave the leaves on the ground to provide ideal habitats for insects on which those birds ‘at risk’ typically forage. Having an over-tidy garden means you are relying on your neighbours’ generosity to provide your quota of diverse bird-life to rid your roses and vegetables of pests!

There are many examples of mutual dependence to be observed amongst our local wildlife. A typical example of how this interaction can work is the goldfinch which is almost alone in feeding on teasels as well as other seed-heads. By resisting the urge to dead-head the seed-capsules of garden flowers you will guarantee visits of this most colourful bird to your garden. You will be amazed also by the increased occurrence of teasel the following year!

And finally, my recommendation for an interesting outing this month is a visit to one or other of our churchyards which are special nature reserves in their own right and are excellent places to see lichens. Lichens comprise a unique association or symbiosis between a fungus and usually an alga and also offer us one of the most characteristic examples around here of inter-dependence between species in nature. Lichens are also barometers of air quality. We are blessed with some relatively clean air, being high up and away from conurbations that have much higher levels of sulphur dioxide. This in turn provides us with a wide variety of lichens on trees, roofs and gravestones. Look out particularly for three distinctive ones present in these parts – the Cup Lichen, blue-green with its trumpet-shaped structures found on older fence posts and tree branches; Crottle, grey, often circular encrustations on trees, gravestones and roofs; and lastly Xanthoria, with its bright orange patches on gravestones and roof slates and like crottle this one was previously used for dyeing wool.

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