Hazel catkins

As the winter solstice, marking the day with the least hours of daylight, fades into distant memory, the unstoppable march towards spring has already begun. What signs, though, can we look out for to know that the new season is truly upon us, and is it really getting earlier each year? With your help we can find out…

Monitoring the months

To help us keep track of the ebb and flow of the seasons, it is important to keep a close watch on any annual changes in climate. Temperature, rainfall and sunlight all play a crucial role in determining the onset of the seasons and therefore have a bearing on the lives of all plants and animals. The collection of data about natural events on an annual basis helps us to carefully monitor the environment in the Heart of England Forest. Known as phenology, it allows us to build a bigger picture of the long-term effects of climate change and the health of the species and ecosystems in the woodland. The changing climate also affects humans, too. For example, early-flowering crops can mean that the insects that pollinate them have not yet developed enough to carry out the task, thus preventing optimum crop growth.

By studying the data collated, scientists have concluded that spring really is arriving earlier with each passing year. The spring season is now fully ‘sprung’ a full eleven days earlier than in the 19th century. They have also found that the passage of spring is not directly north to south, but is aligned southwest to northeast, the same as early spring temperatures.

Looking for clues

One way to cheer up the dark and damp days of winter can be to get out and about and look for the earliest signs of spring. Although meteorologists do not recognise the end of winter until early March, nature is still hard at work and a mild season can often mean the signs of spring are evident much sooner. One species that is a sure-fire pointer to the onset of spring is hazel – its catkins may be found in bloom soon after Christmas if the winter has been warmer than usual.

Catkins are the male flowers of the hazel tree and first appear as the leaves fall during autumn, looking like little grey sausages on the ends of the twigs. In January they usually lengthen into the familiar ‘lamb’s tails’ (pollarded hazel was traditionally used for lambing pens) and turn golden with pollen that blows on the spring breezes to fertilise the females, which have tiny, crimson flowers near their leaf buds. If you are lucky enough to see the latter in January, you will know that winter has indeed been a relatively warm season and spring is close by.

Other spring signs

Along with hazel, there are other telltale signs of spring to look out for. After a mild winter, elder can begin to burst its buds as early as December, but more commonly this occurs in January or February. Flowering snowdrops and lesser celandine are favourite finds, while those rummaging under leaf litter on the woodland floor can often see the first hint of spring by spotting the bright green spears of the first bluebell leaves. It’s important to leave them covered as the dead leaves help insulate them against any harsh weather.

Be a spring sleuth

Visitors to the Heart of England Forest early in the New Year can help us to hunt out the first signs of spring. If you are wandering in the Forest and spot any of the clues mentioned above, we’d love to see the evidence – send us a photo to info@heartofenglandforest.com, tell us where it was spotted and we’ll add it to our collection of data. This baseline data helps us to plan the Forest to ensure it is effective in mitigating against the effects of climate change. Happy hunting!