Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK. Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms: in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures. Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.
Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.
One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon. This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations. The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects. Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds. They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.
During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine. As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.
Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path. It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below. This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.
Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham. Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers. The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]
Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach. Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them. They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn. The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass. Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention. Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water. We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.
There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.
I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them. There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.
A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing. Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna. But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.
For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK. When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001. In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so. Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences. For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles. Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food. We are entering uncertain times.