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Early signs of spring becoming the new normal due to climate change, says the Woodland Trust

Earlier signs of spring — such as the first leafing of trees or the first sightings of butterflies — could be here to stay says the Woodland Trust.

One of the first trees to come into leaf is the elder and for the last five years records of its first leafing have been earlier than the 20 year average by four to 16 days — with 2024 seemingly following suit.

Observations of leafing on the likes of larch, rowan and oak have also been early, roughly one to two weeks before the average.

Brimstone butterfly. Photo by John Bridges.
Brimstone butterfly. Photo by John Bridges.

There have been many sightings of brimstone butterflies already, which are traditionally one of the first to be spotted each year, about two weeks earlier than usual.

Dr Judith Garforth, citizen science officer at the Woodland Trust, recorded elder first leaf on 20 February in North Yorkshire and said spring is spreading north rapidly.

She said: “While the sighting of an elder In leaf was a very welcome glimmer of spring after all the grim wet weather, it was much earlier than I’d expect, especially this far north.

“Overall though, the general trend is continuing with spring arriving earlier and becoming something like the new norm.

“Our data provides the clearest evidence of a changing climate affecting wildlife.”

Elder tree. Photo: Ben Lee.
Elder tree. Photo: Ben Lee.

These early signs of spring are not a surprise this year as Met Office data showed temperatures in February were 2.2C above the average, making it the warmest February on record for England and Wales.

The spring index, which compares modern and historic data, is running 8.7 days earlier.

Dr Garforth said earlier springs can lead to ecological food chains becoming 'mismatched' or out of sync.

For example, a study led by Malcolm Burgess that used the Nature’s Calendar oak leafing data, showed that early oak leafing lead to an earlier peak in the number of moth caterpillars, which meant that blue tits needed to match their breeding timing so that their chicks were at their hungriest when caterpillar numbers were at their highest.

However, the study found that the blue tits were able to react less quickly to the early spring temperatures compared to the trees and moths.

This led to the timing of hungry chicks being later than the timing of peak caterpillar abundance, which in turn meant less food for the chicks, and therefore less food resources which leads to a decrease in breeding success.

Common dog violet flowering in oak woodland. Photo: Richard Becker.
Common dog violet flowering in oak woodland. Photo: Richard Becker.

Dr Garforth added: “Another example is that we sometimes see insects emerging early in the spring before there are many flowers blooming to provide a good food source for them.

“Change has happened very quickly which is why the best option to help wildlife would be to slow it down, by reducing CO2 emissions and by planting more trees.

“We must continue to monitor this ever-important data we receive to keep tracking nature’s response.”

The Woodland Trust is seking more volunteers to become citizen scientists to keep this the 300-year-old recording tradition alive — visit the Woodland Trust website to find out more.

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