Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s National Specialist on Nature, looks back at the year’s weather so far and asks what’s in store for us this summer:
“This winter was one of the stormiest on record, with a succession of powerful storms hitting our shores from 23 December right through until 24 February. So much so, in fact, that in England and Wales it was the wettest winter since 1766.
“Despite the storms, it was also the mildest winter in more than 100 years. Stockpiles of road grit were left untouched and toboggans abandoned in the south of England.
“The storms changed or damaged habitats and upset a lot of wildlife, including puffins, guillemots and razorbills. Tree loss on National Trust land was the worst seen in two decades, with the Killerton Estate in Devon losing more than 500 trees alone. Burrowing animals were drowned out, especially earth worms and locally moles, voles and rabbits.
“The unseasonably warm January saw many song birds tuning up early and hazel catkins were fully out, kicking off what has been a nightmare few months for hayfever sufferers.
“The mild weather unsettled hibernating insects and hedgehogs but spurred on slugs, which may make a comeback in 2014 – so mourns the gardener. On the plus side, high water levels benefited breeding frogs, toads and newts, and the rare fairy shrimp in New Forest puddles.
“Only resident birds were spotted in many gardens with field birds staying in the fields where berries and other food abounded. As a result a profuse crop of fallen apples lay rotting on the ground and bird food was left on the shelf.
“The only thing holding spring back was the heavy rain and saturated ground conditions. At the end of February, however, someone switched the tap off and spring really broke through. Sallows (pussy willows) and bluebells flowered early and it has been an excellent year for celandines, primroses and cowslips which all came out at once.
“Spring’s radical advance was stalled temporarily by three cool, wet weeks after Easter which have only just come to a close. Many things are still very early with elder and dog rose already coming into flower and some thistles starting coming out too – it’s ridiculous to see them in mid-May!
“With winter barley advanced so that its ears are prominent and starting to turn silver, it’s tempting to say ‘Hello June!’, but the picture is patchy.
“As we look forward to high summer the caterpillars of some July butterflies are very advanced already, white admiral and purple emperor in particular. Small tortoiseshells are ridiculously advanced and will be out in late May this year, almost a month early!
“However, a cautionary tale comes from the memories of 2011. We had an incredible spring, a definitive April, with things even more advanced than now, but then the jet stream jumped south leading to a rotten May, a vile June and a very bad summer!
“We don’t want that back. We want to carry on from where we left off at the end of the Great Summer of 2013 – so let the sun shine and the butterflies soar!
“Famous last words: the water table is so high there is little chance of any biting drought.”