The long winding road towards spring

The journey towards spring has begun writes naturalist Matthew Oates.

There is an eternal push-and-pull relationship between spring and winter. The battle is usually at its fiercest during February, but can last well into April. This time, spring was pushing forward steadily as December and early January were mild, but she was reigned in by a ten day cold snowy spell in late January, which produced superb tobogganing conditions. The snow melted spectacularly over the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend, which deprived us rather as many of the more unusual birds instantly dispersed from the gardens (Chaffinch counts in my own garden on the Glos / Wilts border collapsed from 30-50 during the snow down to seven for BGBW, and the Bramblings vanished).

The cold spell was welcome, as an early spring is a high risk strategy that usually ends in tears – or more aptly, in a cold snap. Spring mustn’t get over-excited and rush ahead of herself. Slow and steady is the surest way.

The first signs of spring are incredibly localised, with the likes of Bluebell spikes and Hawthorn leaves appearing at the foot of warm south-facing slopes weeks ahead. And spring features appear earlier in towns and cities, doubtless due to the warmth that issues from our buildings. There, young cock birds tune up far earlier than in the cooler countryside.

One of the main features of late winter or incipient spring – call it what you will, for the two are so closely entwined as to be one – is the land drying out, in preparation for true spring. That’s precisely what has been happening in the countryside these last few days.

To me, New Year’s Day is not January 1st, but when I first see Rooks building – and I watch out for them assiduously. This usually occurs around Valentine’s Day, but I am delighted to report that one of my daughters has just texted me to say that she has seen Rooks building this very morning outside Goring station in the Thames valley.

The poet-naturalist Edward Thomas (1878-1917) muses in The South Country (1909): ‘It is not yet spring. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and blessed than ever was spring.’ Our duty now, at this very time, is to help dream the spring. Later, at the end of In Pursuit of Spring (1914) he writes: ‘Winter may rise up through mould alive with violets and primroses and daffodils, but when cowslips and bluebells have grown over his grave he cannot rise again: he is dead and rotten, and from his ashes the blossoms are springing.’

Matthew Oates is a naturalist working for the National Trust. You can follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/NTMatthewOates

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