Hedgehogs to swimsuits: How a warm winter affects us all

Claire Rady at RHS Wisley Image copyright RHS/Oliver Dixon
Image caption Horticulturalist Claire Rady admires the flowering Daphne at Wisley, Surrey

Flip-flops, lawn-mowing and dripping ice creams. It's winter but not as we know it.

For the first time, the UK has been basking in temperatures above 20C in winter as forecasters say Tuesday is another record-breaking day.

The warm spell may have drawn people out into parks and streets to soak up the sun but it's causing concern for some.

Nature in crisis?

Wildlife charities fear that if the weather turns cold again, it could lead to a crisis in nature.

Hibernating hedgehogs, reptiles and insects are being roused by the warm temperatures and coming out but they could struggle to find food if cold weather forces worms and slugs to disappear out of reach.

The RSPB says it has received reports of birds attempting to nest and breed, including reports of ducklings spotted across the country, butterflies emerging, and even migrant birds like swallows and house martins appearing back in the UK much earlier than they should.

Gemma Hogg, from the charity, said early nesting and breeding were not necessarily a bad thing as it might allow some birds to have an extra brood before the main breeding season.

But if the weather changes back to more normal conditions, the birds may get caught out and struggle to find enough food for themselves and their young, she said.

How to help wildlife survive a cold snap

Image copyright Barcroft Media
  • Put out energy-rich foods like meal worms and fat balls for birds
  • Make sure there is fresh water for drinking and bathing
  • Provide nest boxes
  • In the long-term, plant pollen-rich flowers
  • Avoid cutting back hedges, ivy growth or other vegetation where birds may be starting to build nests
  • If you see a hedgehog, think about putting out a small amount of fish-free dog food for them and retaining a wild corner where they can nest

Source: Suffolk Wildlife Trust and RSPB

Meanwhile, on the UK's farms, the warm weather has meant farmers have been able to get out on the land in the sunshine to drill and plant, says the National Farmers' Union (NFU).

It's in stark contrast to the same time last year when the country was about to endure the worst of the Beast from the East, which brought widespread snow, sub-zero temperatures and frozen fields.

Now it seems to be business as usual, says the NFU, adding that the animals should be unaffected by slightly higher temperatures. They can find some shade and farmers can leave out extra water.

Early-blooming flowers

Image copyright RHS/Oliver Dixon

At Wisley Gardens in Surrey, hordes of visitors are enjoying the 200,000 crocuses that currently blanket the lawns. It's a dazzling display that chief horticulturalist Guy Barter can enjoy from his office window.

He said record-breaking temperatures, which peaked on Monday at 19.9C, have brought flowers out earlier than usual, including the first glimmers of magnolias and flowers on pear and plum trees.

In North Yorkshire at Harlow Carr, curator Paul Cook says the yew trees are in full flower, plenty of early rhododendrons are flowering and the quality and amount of flowers is outstanding.

The warm weather has also brought out the visitors - the Royal Horticultural Society say it's looking like record February visitor numbers across all their gardens, with RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex up 62% on last year.

"Enjoyable though it is, we would rather seasons did what they were supposed to do," says Guy Barter, as he recalls taking a photo of one of Wisley's water fountains last year that had turned to a block of ice.

His advice to amateur gardeners:

  • Don't let this weather go to your head and rush out to plant tender plants - keep an eye on the calendar
  • Move pots into a conservatory, greenhouse or closer to the house as night temperatures are still very cold
  • Get ready to mow the lawn (normally he would advise putting mowers away from November to March)
  • Move houseplants away from sunny windowsills to stop them getting cooked

Interactive Christchurch Park, Ipswich

February 2019

Christchurch Park, Ipswich in February 2019

February 2018

Christchurch Park, Ipswich in February 2018

In the shops

What a difference a year can make. This time last year, sledges were out in the supermarkets. Now we're seeing stores beginning to put out their spring clothing ranges.

Last week, Asda saw sales of swimwear by its clothing brand, George, were up 19%, sunglasses up 27% and shorts up 150% year-on-year.

At Sainsbury's, rose wine, a drink typically enjoyed on a summer's day, and ice creams were flying off the shelves. On Monday, ice cream sales were up 370% on the previous year.

Anne Alexandre, of the British Retail Consortium, said that while unseasonal temperatures can make planning more challenging, the warm weather would have had a positive effect on sales, particularly as it coincided with half-term school holidays when children's footwear and furniture usually sell well.

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