Suffolk: Could early spring and summer spell hasty arrival of autumn?

An autumn's day in Colchester's Castle Park. An autumn's day in Colchester's Castle Park.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014
11:41 AM

With spring and summer arriving encouragingly ahead of schedule this year, could it mean we’re in for an early autumn?

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Mild conditions, following one of the wettest winters in a century, meant spring got going sooner than expected - quickly giving way to the earliest summer in recent years.

But with the solstice behind us, the signs of autumn may already be starting to show, and some wildlife experts are tentatively predicting another quick turnaround in the seasons.

Meteorologists are remaining cool on the speculation - instead foreseeing summer-like conditions for at least the next fortnight. But nature tells a different story, according to the National Trust’s Matthew Oates, who sees signs of autumn already in the hedgerows and woods, and in the ominous hush of the blackbird’s song in some parts of the country.

“Looking at this year, where does it want to be? It raged its way through winter, then we went into an incredibly early spring, and then it rushed helter-skelter through spring without stopping for breath,” he said.

As the year reached the half-way mark, the National Trust said wildlife seemed to have come through the wettest and stormiest winter on record and that nature had since hurtled through the seasons.

“We’re ahead still, remarkably ahead, birds have largely stopped singing, a lot of butterflies are very early and are still coming out early,” added naturalist, Mr Oates.

“There are really strong signs of autumn already here, like the beech nuts, it’s an amazing beech mast year and the nuts are incredibly well developed.”

He also said sycamore seeds were well developed, and that hawthorn berries - and even holly berries - were already red.

Here in Suffolk, RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve publicity officer, Ian Barthorpe, thinks perceptions of an early autumn may be the result of an unusually late summer in 2013. He said: “Last year autumn came extremely late, so it’s going to feel early in comparison, but it’s not necessarily early compared to the trend.

“I certainly think that some elements of autumn will come early, due to the early arrival of spring and summer. It could mean that some birds are more likely to have a third or fourth brood that they might not have otherwise had. I also imagine there will be a very good hawthorn crop.

“Things are about three weeks ahead of last year, but it doesn’t always follow that we will see an early autumn because a lot of species are light-dependent.

“Autumn in the bird world starts before midsummer, with wading birds returning in the second week of June, and some ducks already coming back to carry out their autumn malt. Some of our nightingales and cuckoos are probably on their way, but that’s normal.”

From a climate context, Weatherquest forecaster Dan Holley thinks it might be premature to predict the early onset of shorter days, longer nights and cooling temperatures. He said: “Having spoken to farmers at the Norfolk Show last week, some said their crops seem to be two weeks early compared to last year, when we had a cold winter.

“If that trend continues, it might then turn a bit autumnal. But for now, in terms of weather, we’re still seeing a summer-like pattern.

“We will continue to see summer-like weather this week and probably into next week as well.

“We’re only a month into summer and it has been pretty average so far.”

Wildlife seems to have dealt with the wet, stormy winter remarkably well, benefiting more species than have been adversely affected. Some insects may even be able to fit in an extra hatch because they are so far ahead for the year.

Mr Oates said an early autumn would not spell problems for wildlife as long as creatures such as squirrels and dormice have the chance to fatten up before winter sets in.

And if hot dry conditions set in for the summer, he said the water table was high after the wettest winter on record, and the chances of damage to wildlife due to drought were “very low”.

Some of the highs and lows of the changing weather for the UK’s population so far this year:

The winter storms hit seabirds such as puffins, damaged sand dune habitats and brought down hundreds of trees, with the Trust’s Killerton Estate in Devon alone losing more than 500 trees;

But the mild weather meant spring got going fast and early, with hazel catkins out and red squirrels at Formby, near Liverpool, starting their courtship in January;

When the rain stopped, spring got going in earnest, with sallows (pussy willows) and bluebells flowering early;

It was a generally good spring, apart from two poor spells at the end of April and at the end of May which knocked out a number of spring insects;

Bats at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex produced their earliest brood on record, born on May 16, compared to an earliest previous recorded birth of May 23, in 2011;

It was an early and successful breeding season for amphibians, with plenty of warm water, which meat that natterjack toads at Formy spawning well.

A warm, wet spring encouraged grass and other vegetation to grow significantly;

Lots of bottlenose dolphins and leatherback turtles were seen along the Ceredigion coast, the National Trust said.

A real beneficiary from the mild winter was the local population of nesting tawny owl chicks.

In the spring of 2013, Roger Buxton, a wildlife artist who has been ringing and recording owls for the last 15 years, found no chicks in any of his Thornham Owl Project’s 44 nesting boxes between the Waveney Valley and the River Gipping.

But this spring he discovered 27 fledglings occupying 11 boxes inhabited since nesting season began.

Last year’s disappointing find led experts to think that depleted numbers of small prey may have be to blame.

Although the artificial nests are able to withstand poor weather, the decline in numbers may have been due to lack of food.

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