Weather warning: nature’s co-ordinates are failing

Another Life

Finest fleeces: ewes have been blow-dried to perfection. Illustration: Michael Viney

Finest fleeces: ewes have been blow-dried to perfection. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Apr 13, 2013, 07:00

As the month began, the wind went north for a while, as if to confess more honestly its Arctic origins. Then it switched back east to the white-slashed mountains and wherever it is that planes start from to stretch their frosty plumes across the sky.

The wind scoured a hillside spread with ewes-in-waiting, each lying down in her own maternal patch. They were tupped last November, to match lambing to the first spring grass, but found themselves couched instead on pastures grazed to the nap and bleached to shades of khaki.

After weeks without rain, their droppings dotted the bare ground in dry and constipated dollops, but the ewes themselves had never looked finer, fleeces clean, fluffy and blow-dried – perforce – to perfection. Their first few lambs, detergent-white, stayed close in the lee of their mothers or were taken tenderly into barns at night to be warmed in an infrared glow.

My farming neighbours, hollow-eyed from restless torchlight patrols, were at least spared the tears of their brothers in snow-pillowed Ulster and Wales. The west, they agreed, has had the best of it, a brassy sun mocking us often from dawn to dusk.

Things have changed by now, as the pent-up reservoir of rain begins to sweep back from the ocean. A brief simulacrum of spring may precede a brief gesture at summer – who knows any more? The pace of natural change itself has changed, on a planet not used to being hurried.

Reared on eternities of whirling gases, the slow spread of deserts and infinite millennia of ice, it reacts to having its atmosphere upset in mere centuries, even decades. As we melt the sea ice from the poles, the Arctic jet streams swing south in a tizzy of circumpolar aberration.

The birds are finding their voice at sunrise again, though the chorus sounds quite a bit thinner.

A month or more ago, they couldn’t wait to get started on the spring: thrushes up poles, blackbirds on bushes, wrens ghetto-blasting Bach from the hedge. There was a silence for a long while, as if the hillside had been struck dumb with cold, but now the right sounds have been creeping back, among them the shrill delirium of lambs at play.


Missing bumblebees
One I have been missing is the drone of bumblebees. There are my broad beans, safely overwintered in the tunnel and now in tall, scented bloom, but few enough bees find their way in for a pollinating fumble at the flowers.

The trees on the acre, meanwhile, have done their best to ignore this year’s breach of the seasons. Each species is long conditioned by its biogeography, so that trees from the south of Europe tend to stick to old habits of budburst in the spring.

As April began, for example, still well in the grip of frost, the sycamore buds were already cracking to show a peep of catkin, and the horse chestnut was already sporting full quadruple coronets of leaves. The alder, meanwhile, was prizing its first two leaves apart here and there; native oak and ash, frosty memories embedded in their genes, kept their buds tight and dark. “Oak before ash, a bit of a splash; ash before oak, we’re in for a soak” – the ash is nearly always last, but the soak comes anyway.

For years I have recorded this progress into leaf, for digital analysis elsewhere. Phenology, the study of cyclic happenings in nature, was once the passion of country naturalists with notebooks but is now a sterner science, bonded to ecology and the futurology of climate change.

First leaves, flowers, frogspawn, bumblebees and migrant birds were once measures of spring’s arrival – indeed, such events were a guarantee of God’s seasons, fit for Christian clergy to record.

Now they chart the story of a world in which nature’s co-ordinates are failing. Evolutionary timetables narrowed over thousands of years are jolted out of sync, disrupted differentially by global warming. Birds are missing their seasonal appointments with caterpillars, fish with their crucial hatch of plankton.

This icy March for Europe may seem to contradict the trend of warmer, earlier springs, but it was a regional, atmospheric phenomenon (like so many extreme weather events) triggered by the warming at the poles.

So Ireland’s contribution to European phenology goes on, focused in particular on the advancing date of spring, more dramatic and measurable than changes in the autumn dates of fruiting, leaf fall, hibernation and so on.

The Irish Phenology Network, based at Trinity College Dublin, has a nationwide spread of gardens monitoring the habits of the same tree species now being watched across Europe, and other gardens keeping tabs on a range of native Irish species: 10 plants, five birds and five insects.

Anyone can offer more records through Nature Watch (biodiversityireland.ie). “Spring is here!” announced its website on February 28th. “At least in the south of Ireland. . .”

They might like to start that again.