This week, we’ve had a few beautiful, glorious sunny days in this corner of west London. In fact, it has been so lovely at times that you might have been forgiven for thinking that spring had finally arrived to relieve this seemingly never-ending and freezing cold northern hemisphere winter we’ve been shivering through. But you’d be wrong.
Despite the fact that spring actually officially begins this coming weekend with the vernal equinox, there appears to be little sign of it in the nation’s parks and gardens yet. I’ve seen plenty of pretty purple crocuses and a few cheerful yellow daffodils in neighbouring gardens, but even the usually early flowering magnolia trees in my area are only just beginning to bud, and most of the other local trees appear to be as bare as they were in January.
The situation seems to be the same across the country, with the Woodland Trust recently estimating that signs of the British spring are anything up to a month late in emerging this year – and they’d know, they have records tracking the start of spring that date back to the 1600s.
This winter has been one of the coldest in almost twenty years. Since the mid-1980s, winters in Britain have actually been getting significantly milder, which has meant that wildlife patterns have had to gradually adapt to these changing conditions. The net results of these rising winter temperatures have included, amongst other things, the early emergence of some flowers, insects and baby birds, and seasonal changes in avian migration patterns.
A prolonged cold snap, such as that of this winter, can thus have a major impact on both plant and animal numbers when they have adapted to warmer temperatures like these. Cold, snowy weather will inevitably effect wild food supplies for all creatures, particularly small and vulnerable ones – and then survival of the fittest will naturally apply, creating long-term knock-on effects in terms of numbers of future young.
Freezing conditions therefore make it all the more essential to feed the birds regularly during the winter – and to supplement their diets even once spring has arrived and there are chicks to feed. It is true that, very sadly, many small birds and mammals will not have survived this winter; but many will have made it through thanks to the thousands of British animal and bird lovers who have been putting food out for such critters during the worst of the ice and snow.
It is undeniable that the harsh wintery weather will have had a variety of negative short-term and long-term effects on many creatures – but, for some, such as scavengers and predatory birds and animals, the cold and snow will be a positive benefit; albeit at the expense of smaller species fatally weakened by the conditions.
However, a lot of these smaller animals and (in particular) birds, reproduce at a fast enough rate that – despite a more general decline in bird numbers for other reasons – their numbers should return to relatively normal levels within a few breeding cycles.
And there appear to be other plus points to cold winters, not least the tipping of the balance of wildlife patterns back to more normal levels. Our late spring this year means that hibernating creatures like bats and bees (both of which are threatened species anyway) will be less likely to become confused and leave the safety of hibernation before the warmer weather has properly set in, with all the possible risks that would entail for their numbers.
Paradoxically, a cold winter can also help birds as well as hinder them – they are less likely to start the nesting process too early if there is a cold snap, meaning more of their offspring will hopefully survive. And the cold weather kills off much of the threat to animals and birds of the many nasty diseases and viruses that can flourish during milder winters, giving more creatures a chance at survival. All this despite the fact that the cold weather itself is also a threat to the very survival of many species in the wild.
And after all that snow and rain and icy cold temperatures, I, like most of Britain’s wildlife, would really like some spring now.
Better late than never…
UPDATE: An interesting article on the BBC website today quotes British Waterways as saying that the cold snap may well have also “significantly reduced” kingfisher and heron populations in the UK. If you do spot any of these truly beautiful birds, or any other wildlife on or near to your local waterways, then you can report them to the British Waterways annual wildlife survey, which helps to “monitor, protect and conserve the amazing biodiversity found on our canals and rivers”.