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Spring watching through the ages

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 14:18 UK time, Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Guest bloggers Kimberley Tew and Beverley Gormley look back at the records the Woodland Trust holds that document spring happenings dating back 275 years.

Here at the Woodland Trust we are getting really excited about Springwatch starting next week. We love spotting the signs of spring, and judging by the popularity of Springwatch and the records you send in to Nature's Calendar, you do too.

Yellow flowers of the lesser celandine

Yellow flowers of the lesser celandine. Image © Richard Becker / Woodland Trust Picture Library

Nowadays we enjoy wildlife and watching the changing seasons as a hobby or just as a simple pleasure. However, the joy we feel at the sight of the first returning birds, blooming flowers or fluttering butterflies of spring harks back to when our everyday lives were inextricably linked with the changing seasons. The first bluebells of spring were not just a beautiful sight to behold, they meant archers could fletch their arrows with the sap; lesser celandine weren't just pretty yellow flowers, their vitamin C packed leaves helped ward off scurvy.

The Luttrell Psalter is a beautiful example of how important the seasons' changes were to everyday life. This 14th century medieval manuscript is painstakingly illustrated with people and wildlife, documenting life throughout the year on a country estate. Its many illustrations show crows stealing grain from behind a seed sower's back, corn being cut and wild boar eating acorns.

This ancient dependency on nature and our modern love of it means that we have records of key seasonal events stretching back for many hundreds of years.


Cuckoo. Image © Chris Romeiks

The Woodland Trust is fortunate enough to have the records of Robert Marsham who started recording nature's events at his Norfolk estate in 1736. Comparing Marsham's 1753 records to our 2011 records gives us an interesting insight into how events have changed over the centuries. In 1753, he first spotted cuckoos on 25 April, recorded leaves on his oak trees on 25 April and on his ash trees on 12 May. Marsham was famous for his love of trees, and would have been astonished at how early oaks now leaf.

By comparing historical data such as Marsham's to data submitted to Nature's Calendar in more recent years, we have found that on average Britain's plants are flowering five days earlier for every 1°C rise in temperature. The last 25 years have seen the greatest advance in first flowering date, on average 2-12 days earlier than recorded in any previous consecutive 25-year period.

We are still recording spring events for this year, but it looks like it will be another record-breaking spring for many species. The average recorded date for frogspawn looks set to be about ten days earlier in 2011 than in 2001. Both holly blue and orange tip butterflies have been recorded perhaps 20 or more days earlier than in 2001. Once we have finished recording for this spring we will be able to give you a more accurate picture of how this year compares to previous years.

Spotted flycatcher

Spotted flycatcher. Image © Neil Gray

You can help build a bigger picture of how the climate is changing by exploring your local area and telling us what is happening in nature and when. Visit your local woodland, park or even just look around you in your street and tell us what you see. Now is a good time to spot cocksfoot flowering, and Nature's Calendar is just starting to receive this year's first records for meadow foxtail and silver birch flowering as well as the first sightings of the spotted flycatcher.


  • Comment number 1.

    We're holding our 2nd Corfe Mullen BioBlitz tomorrow - to record as much wildlife in the village of Corfe Mullen (just outside Poole) as we can in 12 hours. Hugh Miles (of Springwatch fame) is helping us, and we have a host of other experts. If you are in the area come along www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/bb Can we beat last years total of over 500 species? Wish us luck... Jane


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