England

How have crops and animals coped with the mild winter?

  • 9 January 2016
  • From the section England
Fat squirrel Image copyright Rob Browne / Media Wales
Image caption Fatter squirrels have been spotted around Cardiff, which has been attributed to the milder weather

Winter may finally be coming, but the unexpectedly warm and wet weather has been causing havoc across the country.

Flooding in Cumbria and Yorkshire has devastated entire communities, while storms have battered much of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the wettest December on record.

In the natural world, seasonal rhythms have been knocked out of kilter, with flowers and crops blooming earlier than usual and animals' normal patterns confused by the lack of a traditional winter.

So what impact has the peculiar weather had across the country?

Image copyright Steve Parsons / PA
Image caption Daffodils are in bloom near Windsor Castle, many weeks earlier than usual

The mild December was notable for the number of wildflowers, daffodils and other spring-like flora flowering before the year had ended.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has reported plants such as irises, marigolds and narcissi flowering weeks early at its Rosemoor gardens in Devon, with more than 20 other varieties of shrubs still flowering after a lack of frost.

At RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey, witch hazels that usually flower in mid-January have already been in bloom, with Narcissus bulbocodium flowers - which normally arrive in March - making their earliest ever appearance.

Guy Barter, chief horticultural adviser for the RHS, said northern and western regions had been affected the most.

"This is a most astonishingly early season, the earliest I can recall in over 20 years working for the RHS," he said.

"We knew something was up when the earliest daffodils flowered before Christmas, when I have never seen them flower before mid-January."

Image copyright Emily Whitfield-Wicks
Image caption South African aloes flowering at Abbey Garden in Tresco on the Isles of Scilly. A record total of 289 plant species were blooming at its annual new year count

Down at Trewithen Gardens in Cornwall, head gardener Gary Long saw his first magnolia blossom on New Year's Eve, more than five weeks earlier than last year and 10 days earlier than the previous record set in 2012.

He said the site had declared spring on 7 December after the first camellia went into bloom.

"The season is well ahead of us," he said.

"We all know it's been much milder than usual but 2016 is already turning out to be a horticultural record-breaker."

Image caption The asparagus crop is usually harvested from March

As well as flowers and shrubs, fruit and vegetables have also been coming through at unusual times, with crop farmers having to adapt to the unusual agricultural conditions.

Herefordshire asparagus farmer Chris Chinn said he was "absolutely astonished" to see foot-long asparagus sprouting two months ahead of schedule at his farm in Ross on Wye, while the National Farmers' Union (NFU) warned last month food production in the UK could be threatened by the increasingly volatile weather.

Lee Abbey, a horticultural adviser with the NFU, said abnormal weather would "naturally" have an impact on food production and crop storage, but added that farmers were working "incredibly hard" to ensure customers would not be affected.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Wet and mild weather could have a significant impact on British bees, experts fear

For the animal kingdom, the cost of a mild winter may not be fully known for months.

Bees, a species crucial for crop pollination and helping plants to grow, have had a tough year, with their natural foraging habits badly affected by a wet summer and then the unusual winter.

Tim Lovett, from the British Beekeepers Association, is expecting a number of colonies to be lost, and fears the country could "reap a whirlwind" from a bad 2015 for apiaries.

"Mild, wet weather isn't good news for bees," he said.

"When it's cold they huddle together to generate heat by clenching and unclenching muscles in their abdomen, but when it's warm and damp it's more difficult for them to deal with.

"The cold obliges them to cluster and not bother to go out, they're more economical with their honey stores, but when it's mild they're not forced into clustering and they may get misled into going out foraging and [if they are caught in rain] get drowned out."

Image copyright Photolibrary.com
Image caption Songbirds such as thrushes are reportedly singing more than usual this winter

Not all animals are suffering in the clement conditions, though.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said blackbirds, great tits and varieties of thrush are singing more this winter, having been confused by the warmer weather into setting up territories, with insectivorous species such as goldcrests finding it easier to prey on caterpillars and other animals.

While many migratory birds have been unaffected by the change, with their patterns determined by day length, some birds have been reported as nesting earlier than normal.

Martin Fowlie, from the RSPB, said some birds had been "fooled" into altering their usual habits, but he hopes the expected cold weather next week will see wintry habits return.

"Once a cold snap comes though, things should rapidly revert to normal," he said.

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