Don’t Plant Your Potatoes Yet: Wait Until May:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a bird – perhaps a sparrow, a sand martin or a spoonbill. You’ve just arrived in Britain on your annual migration from Africa. As it’s now officially “British Summer Time”(BST), you quite reasonably assume that the sun will shining, the new-born lambs happily gambolling in the hills and the human population has, with relief, cast off its heavy scarves, hats and coats. What do you find instead? A country still shivering in the throes of  winter – in marked contrast to the same period last year, which was the warmest since 1957.

The UK Meteorological Office has (reports the “Daily Mail”) “extended its ‘Cold Weather Alert Service’ (which usually finishes at the end of March) by an additional two weeks because of the unrelenting bad weather” and (notes “The Guardian”) predicted “below-average temperatures and possible snow until late April”. The Guardian (along with most of the UK media) has published Met Office statistics indicating that March 2013 was “the joint-fourth coldest” the country has experienced since 1910, with an average of 2.5 degrees centigrade and that the worst was in 1962 (1.9C). It was also “dull”, complained the Daily Mail.  “A normal March day would usually see 3 ¾ hours of sunshine whereas this year we saw only a little over 2 hours per day”.

So what should you (still in your role as a bird) do and where should you go? Possibly, follow the example of other avian species who – as the RSPB (Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds) has pointed out – have been forced to search for food in urban gardens because of the harsh conditions in the countryside. The birds, of course, are not the only ones who have suffered: Sheep farmers in many parts of the UK (especially in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Cumbria and the Pennines) have had to dig into deep, freezing snow in a too often forlorn & desperate attempt to rescue thousands of their new-born lambs. At the Hall Hill Farm in Lanchester, County Durham, those lambs that have managed to survive have been provided with “knitted woollen jumpers to help keep them alive for their first few days of life”.

For many farmers, the situation could have a “devastating financial impact”. With this in mind, the supermarket chain Waitrose informed the Guardian  that it “would be delivering special macs (light plastic biodegradable & recyclable coats)” to protect the lambs belonging to farmers with whom it works in Wales and the West Country. The same newspaper also revealed on March 28th that – due to the “late blooming of popular flowers this year” – the retailer John Lewis is “stocking fake daffodils for the first time and has also started selling artificial bluebells”. According to the “Observer” journalist Simon Neville (in his column on March 24th), John Lewis “ which should now be selling the latest spring fashions, said glove sales were up 40% last week on a year ago and the sales of heaters were up 172%. Instead of sandals and summer vests, they are selling winter boots and thermal underwear”. Furthermore, that the cold weather was likely to adversely affect DIY (Do It Yourself) stores and garden centres, with “Homebase” already announcing that sales are down by 2.8%.

A survey conducted by ITV News Anglia has reached a similar conclusion. David Rayner, Chairman of “Scotsdales”, near Cambridge, told them that plant sales were “74% down in March” and that people are currently “ just not interested in gardening”. “Good Friday”, declared Terry Rayner, owner of “Terwin Seeds” near Bury St Edmunds “is traditionally the time to plant potatoes”. But not this year: “It could be another two or three weeks before they go in”. Although gardeners customarily “sow crops like carrots, beetroot and lettuce by mid-March”,  they are unable to do so while the ground remains “too cold and hard”. William Dyson, the curator of the Great Comp Garden in Sevenoaks, Kent, takes an altogether different view. He anticipates that the Spring (when it finally appears) will be “Amazing & colourful…All the plants that flower between March & May will come out together: Magnolia, Narcissus, Tulips, Azaleas, Rhododendrons”.

Until that happens, one option available to you (as a bird or a person) is to head back down south for a month or so. By doing so, you’ll be emulating the stampede to get out of the country that occurred during the festive weekend: “Easter Exit: Record numbers flee frozen Britain to find the sun” proclaimed the London Evening Standard on 27th March. Likewise the headline in the Guardian the next day: “OK, that’s it…we’re out of here! Fed-up Britons flee the cold…” The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) estimated that 1.7 million people in Britain would go abroad for Easter compared to 1.5 million in 2012, with Spain as the preferred destination and Egypt & Tunisia “also top choices”. Online bookings with TUI Travel (owners of Thomson and First Choice) “ to resorts such as Fuerteventura in the Canaries, Greece and Tunisia increased from 2012 by 73%, 45% and 37% respectively”.

So why exactly has it been such a long, tough winter? “Daily Mail Online” and the Huffington Post’s Clare Nasir both attribute much of the responsibility to the fact that the “jet stream” (which “normally brings milder weather”) has been pushed to an unusually southerly location and is currently flowing round the north of Africa”. Climate Change campaigners agree with them – but insist that it’s because “Global warming melts the ice and warms the sea which changes the jet stream…which controls northern weather”. The “Socio-Economics History Blog” fiercely contests that view, on the basis that “Four out of the last five winters have been colder than average”. Astrophysicist Piers Corbyn has asserted that “By any measure, world temperature is declining”. The assessment of  “The Economist” (in its March 30th-April 5th edition), under the caption of “Apocalypse Perhaps a Little Later” is that “Temperatures have not really risen over the past ten years”. The argument rages on………

Filed under: General | Posted on April 3rd, 2013 by Colin D Gordon

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