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Unseasonal shenanigans

wildlife-column-irish-independentThis column was first published in the Weekend Magazine of the Irish Independent on Saturday 04 February 2012.

One of the things I like most about living in Ireland is the changing seasons.

The tropics are over rated. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of predictable sunshine now and again certainly wouldn’t go amiss, but you’d soon grow tired of the sameness of it all. You’d miss the seasons… the quarterly punctuation of your calendar year by cyclical and predictable climate change.

In our temperate climate seasons help to synchronise life. Spring, summer, autumn, winter — we tend to schedule our lives around them, managing our work and leisure time according to seasonal rhythms. It’s something so ingrained that we don’t even notice it, but we all live our lives to the beat of a seasonal drum.

Seasons influence us all… but for the plants and animals we share our island nation with the synchronisation of life around seasonal change is a matter of life and death.

Plants flower to coincide with the activity of pollinating insects (or insects emerge to coincide with the flowering of nectar-rich food plants… take your pick); birds synchronise their nesting so chicks hatch when there’s a super-abundance of food; hibernating mammals, like hedgehogs emerge from hibernation when the invertebrates they feed on are plentiful. Nature is full of these “happy coincidences”, and they are all triggered by the rhythm of established, predictable seasonal change. They happen, by and large, at the same time every year.

Except that this year something is seriously awry.

Frogs have been spawning since before Christmas, when they wouldn’t normally emerge until mid February. I was out cycling this week when I almost choked on a cloud of unseasonal midges. I stopped to catch my breath and there in the grassy verge was a flowering herb-robert — a pretty little pink wildflower that doesn’t normally bloom until April or May.

Our resident birds are in full song, and some are already pairing up. A house sparrow couple getting frisky on the bird feeder outside my office suggests that, for some at least, the breeding season is in full swing. Hedgehogs are out and about, plants are flowering early, trees are budding — all months ahead of schedule. There was even a report of a swallow arriving over West Cornwall last week — not Irish, granted, but not far away either.

It’s all a bit odd.

The catalyst for all this early spring activity is the mild weather, but it’s not affecting everything in the same way. Some spring events are triggered by day length, not temperature, and that puts nature’s careful crafted balance out of kilter. Combine that imbalance with the very real potential for a sting in winters tail, and it could spell trouble for those species who have jumped the gun.

I’m all for the mild weather… and I’m delighted we seem to have avoided the deep freeze that descended over the last couple of winters. I just hope that this “early” spring doesn’t turn out to be a false start for some of our more vulnerable wildlife.

1 comment

  • David Gorman

    Very good article Calvin. It is a real worry and hazard for the wildlife. Let’s hope they can still manage and it doesn’t go totally out of sync.

    Regards – Dave

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