Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April (snow) showers, bring forth May flowers...

Sometimes Spring can seem a bit like a tick list- beginning somewhere in darkest February and petering away in late May. We all have a different Spring tick list- dominated by the things we notice most. For some people the list could be dominated by the particular order in which they plant their vegetable seeds. For some it might be the order in which you shed the winter woollies . And for others it might be the run of boozy Bank Holidays that punctuate the calender at this time of year.

However you measure the arrival of Spring the chances are that somewhere in your list will be a nod to the natural world- be it the first daffodil, the first lambs or the return of the Swallow. Whatever it is the most important thing is that these indicators arrive roughly in the correct order.

For those of us that take an interest in the natural world the Spring is marked by arrival of particular flowers, particular emerging insects and particular migrating birds. Sometimes things run a little behind schedule, sometimes ahead of themselves, but as long as the order is maintained we're happy, it's a relief, and summer is on the way.

Chiffchaff, Sand Martin, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Swift. It's just the way it is and if one year the Whitethroat arrived before the Willow Warbler, or the Garden Warbler failed to turn up it wouldn't feel right at all. I still hear people that are quite put out by the fact they haven't heard a Cuckoo.

This Springs' order had been going so well. It was the 3rd of April, Chiffchaffs were nest-building, Sand Martins had been sighted, and right on queue a Willow Warbler had been heard. And then it snowed.

It had been forecast, but somehow the absurdity of the prospect of snow meant it didn't really register , it was like a be-lated April Fools. joke From about 5.30am it snowed... and snowed. The strong winds drove it sideways, our electricity was cut off, the roads blocked, and something I can only describe as 'seasonal confusion' kicked in.

By first light we were white-over, and the countryside was eerily quiet. I topped up the bird feeders and House Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, Chaffinches & Goldfinches flocked back, some species particularly the Tits had naturally dispersed in search of breeding sites so were slower to find their way back to their winter feeding station. Unsurprisingly the birds consumed more than five times the amount of food they normally do in one day at this time of year.

The dairy herd had been turned-out for the summer just a couple of weeks ago, today they found themselves back inside- not that they minded- for them as for us- confusion reigned. They could only watch, and presumably speculate that we had experienced a very short summer indeed.

Snow continued throughout the day, clearing the ground proved a waste of time as the snow simply reclaimed the exposed ground within minutes. The strong winds meant the snow drifted, areas sheltered from the wind escaped the snow and larger birds such as a Rooks, Pheasants, a Jay and a Red-Legged Partridge were seen foraging on clear ground. Black-headed Gulls also took advantage of these areas but looked strange traversing a snowy sky in full summer plumage.

We tend to lamb our sheep a little later than most farms, we do this because it would be too much work for us to care for the dairy herd whilst housed indoors and lamb the sheep- whilst not usually ideal, this year it's worked out for the best. Here some of our in-lamb ewes shelter from the blizzard. Many farmers were happily lambing their flocks outdoors and may now have lost young lambs to the freezing conditions. Even those indoors will have suffered as power cuts meant it was impossible to keep vulnerable lambs warm.

Some of our cattle had been taken to summer-grazing away from the farm, they couldn't be returned to their winter sheds and for them the snow was a nasty surprise. For the young calves it was about keeping them warm, and with no time to prepare keeping out the cold relied on straw bales, wood and of course bale-string.

Trees were emerging from winter dormancy and the sap-filled boughs struggled to cope with the wet, heavy snow and the strong winds. Boughs were brought crashing down across the farm and some roads were blocked. Thankfully we didn't lose any trees and in the woodland block the trees were relatively unscathed.

And even when in the house the fun and games weren't over. The lack of electricity only made things more challenging, and no matter how long it takes the sodding kettle to boil- tea is always a priority!

It's been a cruel 24 hours for our countryside, bad for the livestock, but perhaps worse for the wildlife. The poor Willow Warbler that flew thousands of miles to-and-from Africa and arrived just yesterday- all to avoid a UK winter will have experienced a taste of one nonetheless. The five species of butterfly that had emerged early and were flitting happily around the farm last week have will probably have perished- it's a bit depressing. When the weather does this, inconvenient, frustrating and harsh as it may seem- it's nature.

Thankfully the snow is now melting,  the forecast tells us it'll be cool for a couple more days meaning it will linger but then Spring will continue, aided by the (much-needed) water from the snow melt. It's been stressful and there will have been little tragedies right across the farm but the Willow Warbler will hopefully be singing again soon and Wednesday 4th April will probably not go down in the records as a great natural catastrophe.

In fact, just to prove that Spring continues, today will be remembered for something... our first flowering bluebell. Tick.

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