‘When is Spring?’ my partner asked me some weeks ago, following Matt Hancock’s announcement about a possible end to lockdown (which now seems overly optimistic). Struggling as I was to get through the dark, wet days of January, it couldn’t come soon enough, but when would it arrive?
The answer is - well, it depends! Meteorologically, the start of spring is the same time every year, as the twelve calendar months are divided into quarters and Spring officially starts on 1st March lasting until the end of May. This would seem appropriate, as it is when we would expect cold weather to be retreating and the days lengthening and warming up.
Alternatively, the start of the astronomical spring varies year to year, depending on the exact moment when day length in the northern hemisphere is exactly equal to that in the southern hemisphere, marking the moment the Earth’s equator is closest to the sun. This year, Spring begins on Saturday 20th March.
Gardeners naturally talk of the seasons and of such importance they divide them into three, early, middle and late with Early Spring also starting on the 1st March each year. But gardening folk have to follow nature’s seasons rather than the calendar and increasingly have try to accommodate wildly fluctuating temperatures and rainfall. Such predictions are fraught with difficulty and maybe some end up relying on more traditional methods to know when it is warm enough to plant their potatoes.
I guess many of us also have our own personal signals for Spring’s arrival, maybe the first snowdrop, the first warm day of sunshine, seeing those clumps of primroses in the hedgerows or perhaps the rising crescendo of birdsong. For me I think it is the first daffodil, but In the Valley, I always think of it as the first catkins. Yet in these times of lockdown, when more of us are walking in the country or spending time in the garden, we are ever more witness to the escalating effects of climate change, increasingly conscious of extreme weather events changing our landscape, be they floods, frosts or early flowers. This winter I have noticed foxgloves and red campion in the hedgerows, while the BBC reported a Peacock butterfly sighting in December, here in Cornwall. We should perhaps expect to see snowdrops in January, but on my walks there have been daffodils, lesser Celandine and primroses blooming and while taking part in the RSPB Garden watch I noted two Wheatears that should not be in the country until March/April. The prediction of warmer wetter winters and hotter drier summers is no longer far off in the future, it is here and now, and Spring has arrived early.
Unlike us humans, Nature is forced to adapt to changing conditions; trees and flowers are coming into bud earlier and some insect life is managing to keep pace, but as birds and mammals continue to breed at their normal time, they often miss out the food glut on which they depend. On top of that, a sudden frost after many warm days of sunshine can be a small ecological disaster; as a gardener I might lose a row of potatoes, but for our wildlife it means something much worse.
If we can slow the rate of climate change we can buy time for Nature to adapt, and maybe this could be the silver lining of this pandemic; it has given us time to notice, watch and enjoy nature, it has reduced our dependency on travel and material possessions, and it has, I hope, given us all a chance to reset our expectations of our world and begin to value what we have.
So, is it Spring yet? Well, there are daffodils and catkins and primroses in bloom, there have been sunny warm days and early Wheatears and birds singing loudly, but as I shiver in below zero temperatures, I think it will be a few weeks before I risk braving my bare bottom on the bare soil of my potato patch!