Whatever Next? 

A personal review of weather & wildlife in southern Britain during the first half of 2013  

Late springs are nothing new.  We had a run of them in the late 70s, a scatter during the 80s, a few in the 90s and a couple during the 00s.  But we hadn’t had one since the miserable Foot-in-Mouth spring of 2001 and, most recently, 2006.  Since then we have had a run of early springs, all of which ended in tears – the tears of seemingly endless summer rain, culminating cataclysmically in widespread flooding during the Hose Pipe Ban Summer of 2012. 

At least 2013 has ended the run of early springs that lead to dismal summers.  Also, mercifully, no one has forecast a barbeque summer (as in 2009) or banned hose pipes, the latter being the only effective rain dance yet devised.  In late May, however, Public Health England issued a guidance leaflet on how to cope with heat waves.  The disillusioned may feel that this may inspire the coldest summer on record. 

Whatever happens, it cannot be as bad as 1816, the ‘year without summer’, when much of the northern hemisphere was obscured by volcanic dust generated by the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia.  That year widespread crop failure led to food riots in nearly every European country.  It was the first of a sequence of three dire years wherein the seasons all but merged into one.  It inspired Byron’s poem Darkness, which begins: ‘I had a dream, which was not all a dream, / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/ Did wander darkling…’.  No, don’t let’s go there… .

There’s an even more apocalyptic passage in Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 2 Scene 1, within Titania’s famous ‘forgeries of jealousy’ speech, which includes the lines:  ‘the spring, the summer,/ The childing autumn, angry winter, change/
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,/ By their increase, now knows not which is which’.  Sounds familiar?  Even in Shakespeare’s day there was concern that the seasons were merging into one. 

Copy of P1090508


Spring Weather, 2013

This year, winter was loath to let go.  It’s always hard to remember anything much about winter, especially in high summer, but for the record we had a ten day spell of severe cold in late January followed by a cold but dry February, which led to the second coldest March on record (after 1962).  March was also horribly dull, though in its defence the previous two years had brought superb Marches, so we were due a difficult one.  This March produced frosts most nights and snowy spells around the 12th and 22nd.  April began with a bitter, incisive wind, but was then mixed, including a ten day warm spell which ended on the 24th, before ending with a cold frosty spell.  

May was, yet again, a disappointment, though after a most promising start – the first week was glorious, only for the jet stream to jump south on the 8th.  Incredibly, both bank holiday weekends were sunny and fairly warm – repeat, both bank holiday weekends this May were sunny and fairly warm – in stark contrast to the rest of the month, which was cold and cloudy, and periodically wet and windy.  Frosts occurred in many districts right up to the month’s end, burning off bracken fronds and young leaves on ash saplings, and there was only one mild night all month.  But garden vegetation was so far behind that damage there was restricted largely to unheated greenhouses.  In all, spring (March to May) was the coldest since 1962.

June started well, with a ten day long anticyclonic spell, but the blue skies were tempered by a moderate to fresh north-east wind.  Then, a wet spell commenced on the 11th, with an autumnal gale (which wasn’t as bad as the one we suffered at the end of the first week of June 2012).  Twice June tried to right itself, only to wobble, before ending quite strongly.  It was, though, a windy month, with many cold nights.  Away from the north and far west it was relatively dry.

Most wonderfully, there were no floods during the first half of this year, anywhere. 


Impact on Our Wildlife

All this meant that spring and then summer itself got seriously behind.  Some aspects failed altogether.  For example, frogs and toads failed to breed in many places, including my garden pond which never warmed up enough during the relevant period.  The vegetation developed late, well behind on recent years.  Some plants had amazingly long flowering seasons, notably snowdrops, which flowered from mid January into the second week of April, and daffodils, which persisted well into May.  Primroses began late and lasted late, into the third week of May, dandelions peaked three or four weeks late, in early to mid May, but bluebells came rather from nowhere to peak in most places during the third week of May.  Farmers were worried by the slow start to the grass growth season, though May rains then generated yet another strong grass growth season – which will impact on habitat quality for many species.   

Copy of Wild Daffs 23.3.12

Trees were about three weeks late in coming into leaf.  Horse chestnut and sycamore, two of the earliest to leaf, only started to leaf up in late April.  Beech hedges remained brown, retaining last year’s leaves until the end of April.  Oaks failed to produce any leaves until early May.  Spring-flowering shrubs were also three or even four weeks late, with lilac flowering at the end of May.  Apple trees, both the wild crabs and those in gardens and orchards, only started to bloom in late May.  Some blossomed during a cold, wet spell, but many delayed flowering until the start of June.  There should be quite a good crop of the later varieties of apples, and also of holly berries, as most holly trees flowered during fine weather in early June.  Even the horse chestnut held back from flowering until late May, whereas nowadays it flowers in late April or early May. 

Birds, by and large, must have had a very difficult time, not least due to food shortages.  The bitter north-east wind at the turn of March led to the death of many seabirds along the east coast of Scotland and northern England.  Some 3500 puffins died in a horrific ‘puffin wreck’, seemingly of starvation, along with guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags.  But spare a thought for the summer migrant warblers, which are largely insectivorous and arrived, largely on time, to a countryside seemingly devoid of insects.  No wonder that one of the BTO’s radio tagged cuckoos arrived back from west Africa, took one look at conditions here, and flew back south over the Channel!  That may have been a warning sign, for cuckoo numbers seem to have crashed horrifically down south this year, judging by the number of people who have not heard one (I have heard ten and seen one).  The martins, swallow and swifts must have struggled to find airborne insect food, they virtually disappeared when the weather was particularly cold.  Birds dependent on caterpillars or other crawling invertebrates seem to have suffered similarly.  Cirl bunting, for example, has had a poor breeding year. 

Copy of Linnets Nest Hod Hill

But 2013 seems to have been a superb year for rookeries.  Rooks seem to have been unusually productive, given the abundance of young rooks in early June.  Perhaps the increased amount of spring ploughing, caused by farmers having to re-sow weather-damaged autumn crops, had produced rich pickings?  The rooks started to build, as always, in mid February, around St Valentine’s Day.  Then, the rookeries remained wondrously prominent until the trees finally leafed over during the second half of May.  Rooks keep their own time and are not moved around by early or late springs.  Swifts are similar, always arriving on cue.  The ash does the same, coming into leaf in mid May, whatever.  We should be grateful for these constants. 

Copy of Rook

Finally, winged insect populations must be more influenced by the vagaries of the weather more than any other elements of our wildlife.  Certainly, butterflies been very scarce, away from some high quality habitats, which is hardly surprising as last year was the worst butterfly year on record.  Other insect groups have been equally poor, or even worse – and very late to boot.   Away from the more sheltered spots, moths have perhaps been even scarcer than the butterflies, which is hardly surprising as nights have been either too cool, wet or windy for moth activity.  How many moths have you seen so this year whilst driving at night?  Butterflies are now emerging some two or three weeks later than in recent years, though still a little earlier than in the late springs of the 70s, 80s and 90s.  Individuals of many spring and early summer species are lingering on remarkably late: it may be a year for record ‘latest’ sightings.

Other insects have appeared late, and in pulses which have quickly been blasted away by foul and abusive weather.  Few spring mining bees survived into the good weather of early June.  The St Mark’s Fly, which is supposed to appear en masse on St Mark’s Day (April 25th), failed to show up before May 18th, and then only weakly, before finishing early. 

Copy of St Marks Fly

Hoverflies have been particularly poor, especially those whose larvae are predators of aphids.  Some of the common craneflies, particularly Tipulids, appeared in numbers, probably as a result of last year’s wet conditions.  For the same reason there may be a plague of clegs (small grey horseflies) this July.  But what has happened to the may flies and their aquatic cousins?  The anglers would like to know. 

No, the air has not hummed with insects at all so far this year, and is unlikely to given the paucity of larvae around (oh, the state of the nation’s caterpillars – they’re late and scarce!).  Currently, insect-wise we’re in the doldrums: spring and early summer insects have all but finished whilst those of high summer have yet to begin.  All this is bad news for our insectivorous birds – the hirundines (the swallow family), warblers and cuckoos, and even for resident birds like tits that feed their young on insects. 


Hope Springs

But hope springs eternal, though sometimes one wishes it didn’t – in which case we could simply give up and descend unreservedly into Byron’s darkness.  The last decent summer we had, 2006, came in on the back of a poor, late spring (a foul March, a cool and indifferent April, and a May that started well only to fall totally from grace).  Then there is the tale of the great summer of 1996.  That came in on the back of a spring every bit as late and non-existent as this one, culminating in the second coldest May on record (after 1902).  Then, on Thursday May 30th the weather changed: the wind blew strongly from the deep south, burning off the Stygian gloom and ushering in a massive immigration of migrant Lepidoptera, including thousands of painted lady butterflies.  A wonderful summer ensued.   Interestingly, May 30th also fell on a Thursday this year. 

There is also the story of 1986.  Winter was deep and lingered long that year, March stuttered and failed, April was the coldest since 1922, May was cool and windy, and all told it was one of the coldest springs on record.  June saw little respite – until mid month when, suddenly, the weather improved, giving a reasonable summer and, better late than never, a long Indian summer and the most memorable autumn I’ve known. 

There is always hope.  The sukebind, that most mythical but essential of plants, may even flower this year – albeit three or four weeks late.


Copy of MW m VG Swellshill 27.6.13