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How can you tell when Spring has Sprung?

March is such an exciting month. Every rural walk tells its own story of the early signs of spring, and we love seeing all your photos as you catch glimpses of these tell-tale signs. In late February, we had plenty of photos of snowdrops, catkins and even frog spawn. So how can we tell when spring has sprung and are times changing? Our friends at the Woodland Trust have some interesting insight…

bird silhouette swallowNature’s Calendar is a citizen science project that the Woodland Trust has been running since 1998. The project uses everyday people (including walkers like us!) to report nature sightings in spring and autumn, to help monitor the natural annual cycle and how this is changing. Key observations that are needed to measure the appearance of spring include flowering snowdrops and bluebells, frogs croaking, sightings of swallows and cuckoos and trees coming into leaf. If you want to be part of this project, the Woodland Trust would welcome more sightings in both spring and autumn every year. You can sign up at

Over the past 40 years, biologists have gathered clear evidence that spring is arriving earlier. Trees have been coming into leaf sooner. Migrant birds are arriving earlier with swallows now a week ahead of their dates in 1970. Frogspawn is being spotted before Christmas in the south-west, while comma and holly blue butterflies have been sighted as early as March.

snowdropsChristine Tansey is a Nature's Calendar PhD researcher based at the University of Edinburgh, using citizen science to look at the timing of spring in UK woodlands. Writing for the Woodland Trust, she has some fascinating climate observations, that might help explain some of the nature sightings you make while following the iFootpath walks. Christine has analysed hundreds of thousands of Nature’s Calendar observations of spring timing in plants. This study used first leafing and flowering dates of 22 plant species, collected from 1998-2014.

Plants use both the length of daylight and temperature as signals or cues for when to start growing during spring. These cues help ensure a plant grows at the best, or optimum, time to lead to successful reproduction and survival. As temperatures rise as a result of climate change, the optimum time to grow may also change. The study found that all 22 plant species respond to spring temperatures by producing leaves or flowers earlier when temperatures are warmer.

Given this fact, the key question is whether our plant species are flexible enough to keep up with changes to their optimum leafing and flowering times. Here there is both good news and bad from the study. Several plants and trees have shown a clear ability to adapt to the changing temperatures and still find the optimum time to grow, including wood anemones, silver birch and beech trees. Sadly, four of the species, including native bluebells, do not show this flexibility. This means they will need to rely on natural selection for their survival as spring gets earlier and earlier.

Frogspawn closeupScientists rely on the public’s observations to measure these changes and create projects to help our natural environments to thrive into the future. While out walking why not put your spring sightings to good use by reporting them as part of Nature’s Calendar? Why not try spotting the first tadpoles and seven-spot ladybirds (expected from late March) or the first swallows and cuckoos (expected from April).

You can read Christine’s full blog post at

16 March 2017
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