Cold comfort for wildlife as spring’s arrival is put on ice

I don’t know about you, but there have been times recently when it’s felt as though winter’s never going to leave.

As Easter fell, swathes of the UK were buried under a deep blanket of snow, bringing scenes more akin to Arctic climes than British springtime.

But while many of us have shivered as winter has long outstayed its welcome causing misery to people right across the country, perhaps we should spare a thought for our feathered friends and those animals emerging from hibernation, only to be greeted by a white carpet, rather than a golden one.

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So far, spring has been conspicuous by its absence and the dawn chorus, which at this time of year should be really revving up, has been strangely subdued.

The onomatopoeic call of the chiffchaff, that tiny warbler 
that travels in its millions from Africa to herald the beginning 
of spring, has simply not been heard.

Bird migration for many species has been delayed by the bad weather. In ponds and ditches, those gelatinous globules of frogspawn remain elusive.

It will come as little surprise that March 2013 was the 
coldest for half a century. But apart from proving an unwanted nuisance, the unprecedented cold has had an alarming effect on livestock and wildlife, with thousands of sheep and newborn lambs dying as the pre-Easter blizzards struck in the heart of lambing season.

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But the consequences of this big freeze haven’t just been confined to farmland.

The RSPB reported that North Sea storms killed hundreds of auks, with puffins, razorbills and guillemots washing up dead after starving. Owls, too, have struggled as voles, shrews and mice remained tantalisingly out of reach under a protective cloak of snow.

But it is in our gardens that perhaps the most worrying effects of the weather are being felt. Small finches and tits have battled to find enough food to stay alive – making our bird tables more important than ever.

The humble hedgehog, whose UK population is already in a state of long-term decline, has also been blasted by the blizzards.

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Rising temperatures act as a trigger to wake them from hibernation, but this year the warmth hasn’t come.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) warned that hedgehogs are running out of food, weakening in their sleep and dying before they wake. Fay Vass, chief executive of the BHPS, explains: “The longer the cold weather lasts, the greater the number of hedgehogs that will not wake up.

“Hedgehogs that have woken up are also facing problems; they are struggling to find food and we are getting increasing numbers of calls about them appearing during the daytime, desperate for some food.”

Buglife warned that if the 
cold persists there may be 
another problem lying in wait 
for birds that rely on insects. Steven Falk, a Buglife entomologist says if the cold spell continues for several more weeks then spring pollinators such as 
queen bumblebees, spring hoverflies and butterflies could be badly hit.

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“There will be a knock-on 
effect for birds, because their nesting cycles are remarkably 
well timed to match the emergence of key invertebrates such as aphids, caterpillars and certain midges.”

Butterfly Conservation has reported fewer sightings than would be expected of spring butterflies such as the orange-tip and brimstone. It warned that if temperatures do not improve there could be problems for already struggling species, such as the high brown fritillary and pearl-bordered fritillary, later in the year.

Tony Gent, chief executive of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, says the prolonged cold will slow the development of frogspawn not already killed by the weather, making it vulnerable to disease and fungal infection. But if a warm spring does not come to the rescue, some amphibians may not breed at all.

“The cold weather has certainly delayed amphibian breeding, and it’s likely there will be higher mortality in spawn that’s already been laid than we’d get in most years.

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“We’re hoping a warm spell 
will allow ‘catch-up’ later, but 
we can’t be sure this will 
happen. Most reptiles have 
simply kept their heads down a little longer than usual, waiting for the warmer spring weather to arrive.”

So we’re not the only ones who would like to see the back of winter.

If you are concerned about a hedgehog, visit or call 01584 890 801