Dreaming up spring slowly with Matthew Oates

Snowdrops growing at Kingston Lacy, Dorset © Stephen Robson

Snowdrops growing at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

‘It is not Spring yet. Spring is being dreamed…’, so muses the poet Edward Thomas in his pastoral prose poem The South Country (1909). What Thomas is hinting at here is that Spring (with a capital S) is something which is conjured up; perhaps that is what the sleeping trees and hibernating animals do – they dream, not just of spring, but they dream up the Spring.

Mild winter

The winter of 2013/14 was remarkably wet and stormy, but also absurdly mild, and was notable for the shortage of real frost. How much of the nation’s salt stockpile has been spread on the roads?

What is odd, though, is that spring wasn’t as early as in previous mild winters, such as that of 2007-08, despite comparable temperatures. The annual tally of plants in flower on Valentine’s Day in Trust gardens in the South West was almost identical to last year, when winter was bitter (1464 compared to 1455 in 2013). Conversely, in the mild winter of 2008 the total was 3335.

Dreaming of spring

This year, for weeks hazel catkins rather stood still in the hedges, snowdrops only came into peak flower in February – bang on time. Crocuses moved like snails, the grass stopped growing and for a long time there was no sign of fresh hawthorn leaves in the hedges. Bumblebees only took to the air properly over the mid February weekend, and I saw my first lesser celandine flower of the year at the end of February – somewhat late. However, the song birds have been championing spring for some time now, and are now fully tuned, waking us at dawn. They were somewhat out of kilter with the other elements of our wildlife; perhaps they were conjuring up Spring, desiring to make it a best-ever?

Held back by rain

It must be that the wet did what the cold normally does and slowed spring’s advancement down - not just the incessant rain, but the saturated ground conditions in which plants shut down and retreat into their crowns. This is probably no bad thing as an early spring is a high risk strategy, almost invariably ending in tears – the only year in my experience in which spring came early and did not then fall apart is 1990, a long time ago.

The words ‘winter’ and ‘suffering’ are perhaps interchangeable. More than ever we need and deserve an excellent Spring. Hopefully it has been dreamt up, slowly but surely.

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