Plants and animals are in danger from behaving as if winter is already over

MOTHER Nature is suffering a nervous breakdown. Bizarre and wildly fluctuating weather patterns have confused - and could yet kill - plants and animals across the country.

Botanists, twitchers and wildlife-watchers in Scotland say last week's record-breaking heatwave fooled numerous species into believing winter had already passed.

They now fear animals and plants will perish in their tens of thousands if, as predicted by some experts, the UK suffers its coldest winter for years with temperatures as low as minus 27C.

Concerns about heavy snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures have been mounting since the Meteorological Office took the unprecedented step of issuing a long-range weather warning for the winter.

Wildlife experts fear hibernating animals may be caught out by the dramatic change in the weather after halting their preparations for the winter because of the late warm spell.

Plants are already showing signs of bursting into bloom too early at a time when there are no insects around to pollinate their flowers. At the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, some trees have already started flowering as much as four months early.

"For some of the plants spring has come in autumn, it seems," said Dr Stephan Helfer, a phenologist at the garden. "We have a hazel bush here that normally flowers in February but is already starting to produce flowers in October.

"Flowering is usually triggered by changes in the weather but also the internal clock of the plants themselves.

"The previously mild winters in the past few years has meant the plant has been flowering progressively earlier, but this time it has advanced 32 days on the last year.

"It is possible weather has reset the plant's internal rhythms."

Helfer says a number of other species have also shown unusual activity this year. Wych hazel bushes, which normally flower in early winter, are already bursting with catkins several weeks early.

Rhododendron bushes are also still blooming in the unseasonably warm autumn, nearly two months after they should have lost their flowers at the end of summer.

Helfer fears some plants will be hit hard in the coming winter freeze.

He said: "Up until now it has been business as usual as the weather has been fairly similar to previous years and so the plants will expect it to be the same during the winter.

"If their triggers have been altered over the last few years then a severe winter could be devastating for these plants as they will be flowering at the wrong time and they could be damaged by the cold."

Other species have been displaying baffling behaviour that even scientists are struggling to understand.

Bird-watchers have spotted strange behaviour in migrating geese arriving in Scotland after flying south from Iceland for the winter.

The pink-footed geese have been leaving their roosts beside estuaries in south-east Scotland much later in the day than usual, even going out to search for food at night.

Colin Sheddon, director of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation in Scotland, said: "This is the first season we have had reports of the pink-footed geese moving in such a strange way. They are leaving their roosts in the evening and going inland, which is completely the opposite to what they usually do as they return to their roosts in the evening.

"They normally only do this when there is a full moon but there hasn't been one, so it is difficult to understand what is causing this."

Last week Scotland was hit by the hottest October 27 on record with the mercury soaring to 21.2C in the north-west of the country.

Many animal experts believe the unusually warm weather over recent years has helped rare and tropical species appear in Scotland. Basking sharks now spend their entire time cruising in the once cold waters of the North Sea.

And last month, a rare butterfly that has not been seen in Scotland for nearly 150 years was spotted by wildlife enthusiasts at Traprain Law in East Lothian.

The Wall Butterfly was killed off in Scotland after a series of cold summers in the 1860s. Experts fear the insect could once again disappear north of the Border if extreme cold weather strikes.

Earlier this month the Met Office predicted the coldest winter since 1995 with temperatures dropping nearly 2C below the average in Scotland. Other predictions suggest Scotland will be hit by some of the coldest weather on record, beating the 1989 low of -27.2C in Aberdeenshire.

Animal welfare experts now fear Scottish wildlife such as deer, hedgehogs and frogs could also suffer as their young are killed off in the freezing temperatures.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said: "Deer feed on the young shoots of plants and in cold conditions they can starve to death as the shoots don't grow.

"Hedgehogs produce two sets of young and the latest set will not have had time to put on enough weight to hibernate. If people see hedgehogs running around during daylight hours then they are looking for food.

"People can help by putting out non-fish-based cat and dog food to help them."

Experts at Scottish Natural Heritage claim that while the cold weather could help control pest species such as midges and caterpillars that have boomed following recent mild winters, rare bird species could be hit hard. A spokeswoman said: "Although the colder conditions will have an impact on wildlife it is not likely to be long term.

"The effect can be particularly noticeable in some bird species. In the past the wren and heron populations have suffered declines after a cold snap, while migrating birds will tend to fly further south."

Barry Gromett, a spokesman for the Met office, said: "The historical pattern suggests it is going to be a cold winter as the cold, dry easterly winds come across the continent from Siberia instead of the milder wet winds from the Atlantic."

But Professor Robert Furness, an expert on climate change at Glasgow University, said cold weather was more likely to be a short-lived "blip".

"There is no doubt that the overall trend has been a gradual warming up of the climate."

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