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Here at the Woodland Trust we have been recording signs of spring (and autumn!) for 15 years. This is a mere blink of the eye compared to the records which date back nearly three centuries to when Robert Marsham began recording spring species and events back in 1736 on his family estate near Norwich.
In partnership with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridge we have been able to analyse over two and a half million pieces of data, historic and modern, recorded by the public across the length and breadth of the UK. This information has provided a real insight into how plants and animals are responding to climate change. We have already discovered how both spring and autumn are arriving earlier than before; up to two weeks in the case of certain species, and that the seasons in themselves are also much less distinct. In some years ‘winter’ seems to hardly make an appearance at all.
We know that some species are dependant on one another and so the relationship between when they appear is important. If leafing and caterpillar hatching are happening earlier, for instance, birds will need to be able to respond to this so they don’t miss the peak availability of spring food for their nestlings.
What we have yet to really understand is how and why these events occur geographically across the country and what influences may play a part on their arrival. So theoretically we know that spring should begin in the South West and work its way up the country to Scotland. What is less clear is how quickly certain species will make an appearance across the country from south to north.
With the help of Springwatch viewers we hope to piece together the speed at which five seasonal events are first seen across the country from south to north; seven-spot ladybird, oak leafing, hawthorn flowering, orange-tip butterfly and the swallow returning from Africa.
By analysing the records we hope to find out if there is a uniform direction that spring progresses in, whether particular species react differently and even if it speeds up or slows down as it arrives.
Better understanding of seasonal timings means we may be able to help species that appear less able to react to climate change. For example analysis of our records shows that frogs are so locally adapted they may struggle to keep up with even modest change.
We all know that our precious wildlife habitats are under threat and it’s important we do what we can to protect and link up existing habitats, create new habitats and manage the natural environment for the benefit for as diverse an array of wildlife as possible.
By Dr Kate Lewthwaite, Woodland Trust Citizen Science Manager
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