White blossom on a wild cherry tree in the Forest

Are we seeing signs of spring too soon?

28 February 2023
Heart of England Forest

The days are getting longer, and we have already started to see signs of spring in the Forest. Whilst colourful early spring flowers, bursting tree buds, and bird song are welcome indications of warmer days ahead, is it all happening too soon?

Daffodil and bluebells in the spring, covered in a ground of snow

Weather changes due to climate change

Worrying reports from across the United Kingdom are stating that spring is happening almost a month ahead of schedule, and this could be detrimental to our flora, fauna, and wildlife. We are experiencing milder winters and warmer weather due to the effects of climate change, and this has been the case this January and February. As a result, we are seeing some wildlife appearing sooner when there is less food available to them and buds and flowers are already emerging in our woodlands. 

Our Head Forester, Stephen Coffey, and Biodiversity Data and Survey Officer, Sam Macvie, share their insights and concerns for woodlands and future biodiversity.

A wooden birdbox attached to a tree. Leaves are starting to emerge

The impact on biodiversity

Sam Macvie, from our biodiversity team, states that it is the uncertainty and irregularities in the weather that is concerning, as it does not allow wildlife the chance to adapt and causes mismatches in the food chain.

There are particular worries about the migratory bird species that visit the Forest. They are negatively affected by warmer weather as these incredible birds time their arrival and breeding to when their prey is at their peak. However, migratory birds have not yet accounted for their prey peaking earlier in the UK, and we suspect to see them arrive too late, much like last year.

However, the Red Listed spotted flycatcher and the Amber Listed willow warbler, that both migrate to our woodlands to breed, have been recorded already in the Forest this year, so seem to have benefited from the earlier spring. We will continue to monitor their habitat and hopefully provide them with a safe and sustainable environment to allow them to continue to breed in the Forest.

A willow warbler sitting on a branch
A willow warbler sitting on a branch

Ways you can help

The best we can do is to try and mitigate climate change, and you can play your part at home. Now is a great time of year to clean your bird baths. Birds need water for drinking and bathing. Water is particularly important when natural supplies may be frozen, and in dry and hot weather when water can be harder to find.

With there being a natural mismatch in prey and predator emerging from hibernation at different times, make sure that there is bird food available, and that bird tables and feeders are kept clean to discourage diseases spreading. More information on how to attract and help birds in your garden can be found here:
Information on How to Help Birds - The RSPB

A close up of a mature tree - there are new leaves starting to grow

The impact on woodlands and trees

Head Forester, Stephen Coffey, explains the impacts that climate change is having in the Heart of England Forest this year in particular:

“The greatest challenge that climate change is presenting right now for us in the Forest is the unpredictability it brings. And with weather patterns changing so much, such as an early spring, no one can predict what we will be facing in the next few years. This makes planting and managing woodland in a futureproof way extremely complicated.

Like many other conservation organisations, we are working hard to adapt to these challenges, and are keeping up to date with new scientific research on the topic. Our tree species mix is a resilient one and this year we have planted over 26 different species of trees and shrubs across the Forest. This will ensure good survival in the future if one or two species fail to thrive.” 

However, a concern is if we see an imitation spring, later to be caught out by a harsh, cold spell in late March. “An early flushing of the leaves and then a late frost severely damages the leaves. The energy used to flush and swell the leaves depletes the tree, and it will also lose photosynthesis capacity while it replaces the leaves. While this will most likely not have a significant impact on the majority of trees, vigour would be lost, and a stressed tree is likely to be susceptible to pests and diseases. The earlier the flushing the more chance there is of being caught by a frost event.”

Head Forester Stephen reassures us that although we have seen the effects of an early spring on trees around the Forest, we should rest assured that trees are extremely durable, and many will long outlive us: “Ultimately forests and woodlands are incredibility resilient and, although they may look different in the future, they will certainly still be around in some form. Our task is to ensure as much woodland as possible is given the opportunity to thrive, not just survive, in the uncertain conditions created by climate change.”

How you can help

What can we do to protect young trees and trees that stand alone? It is important to keep to the footpaths within the Forest and your local green spaces, as walking over non-marked areas can damage the soil structure over time. This compaction hinders vital nutrients passing through to the tree’s roots.

Good soil structure can take many years to build up through organic matter such as wildflowers and green manure. However, it can be destroyed very quickly by walking on the soil especially when it is wet. Please be mindful when you are out and about in the Forest this spring, as walking off track now could impair the soil quality and have a detrimental effect especially if we see heatwaves like we did in 2022.


Blackthorn tree with leaves staring to emerge

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