On 15th February I went for a walk up West Lomond in Fife and, as I walked through the fields everything around me screamed ‘SPRING!’ for the first time this year. It was only 7C but it was a clear blue-sky day, utterly calm with a warm sun. There was some gorse blooming on the side of the path and skylarks twittered over the fields. It looked, felt and sounded like spring….but was it?
None of those signs are unique to spring of course. Beautiful days occur all year round, as do gorse flowers. A winter sun can be warm if there’s no wind, skylarks can now be seen in the Lomond Hills in January, and we’d certainly had much warmer days than 7C during the winter. 16.6C in Sutherland on 7th December, in fact. And then, a week after my walk, Fife was plastered white by a 12 hour blizzard and the spring-like day seemed like a false dawn. It therefore seemed timely to repeat the exercise I did for Walkhighlands at the tail end of summer 2016, when I asked the following question on social media:
‘For you, when does autumn start? Is it a set date or do you look for natural signs?’
Six months on, what are people on the lookout for in spring? Well, let’s start with the weird:
‘According to the late Laurie Lee, spring is when lovers discover grass. He also wrote that spring is when a maiden can remove her shoes, her hose and stand barefooted on seven daisies’
‘Spring has sprung when my beard disappears.’
The mind boggles, although I assume the latter means he feels compelled to shave it off rather than waking up one morning to find it gone?
A fixed date
One in six people see spring starting on a fixed date. The earliest of these, cited by just one chap, is 1st February and he explains that this is the start of An t-Earrach, spring in the gaelic calendar. 8% of respondents see spring starting on 1st March, the date used by meteorologists and one person had a nice reason why:
‘My birthday is on the 3rd, and I won’t have it being winter!’
6% of respondents go with the vernal equinox (this year on 20th March), when the days and the nights are roughly of equal length, and one person looks for:
‘The appearance of the stars Arcturus & Spica in evening sky’
I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of those but apparently they’re two of the brightest stars in the spring sky, forming two of the three points in an equilateral formation called the ‘spring triangle’. Finally, a small minority of people confidently state a specific month or time between mid March and May:
‘In the Highlands – about end of April’
Plants and animals
As with autumn, around two thirds of people are getting their spring cues from plant and animal behaviour. Plants are the most popular, with half of all respondents mentioning them in some capacity, even if it’s just a general comment about vegetation growth, of colour returning to the landscape, or our physiological responses to it:
‘When the Lawnmowers start deafening me.’
‘Seeing that green haze on trees and bushes, that tells you the leaves will be out any day now’
‘Looking at the Ochils, I consider spring to have begun when the brown starts changing to green again’
‘My allergies are a sure sign, before I see even a single green bud’
A significant number of people are watching for catkins or buds appearing on trees but an impressive 31% are looking out for specific species. That said, some people are looking for the first shoots while others are waiting for flowers in full bloom. With 16% of people mentioning them by name, daffodils are the most popular single spring sign of the whole survey.
Snowdrops and crocuses are the next most popular flower signs, followed by primrose, cherry blossom and bluebells, but it’s definitely the cultivated rather than properly wild flowers that people are watching for. That’s not surprising given that we see the former in our gardens and around our towns, whereas common early spring flowers like lesser celandine and wood anemone (which were mentioned by only one person) tend to be found in wilder places and woodlands.
After plant life, birds are the next most popular grouping with just over a third of people mentioning them in some way, from general behaviour to something very….erm….specific:
‘When I see Wood Pigeons flirting!’
14 different species are singled out as spring indicators, most notably skylarks, oystercatchers and lapwings, although for some people one species does not a spring make:
‘Hearing skylarks today made me think Spring, but I’m holding out for curlews on the moors.’
Alas, that is the poor curlew’s only mention. However, it’s the blackbird that gets the most votes, largely on account of its song. Indeed the dawn chorus and general rise in volume of birdy twittering is mentioned by 15% of all respondents, making it the second most popular spring sign after daffodils, although not everyone is 100% happy about it:
‘I love the dawn chorus, but who decided to make it so early in the day?’
Nest building is a popular spring sign too, and we get a nice insight into how people at home are trying to help their feathered friends:
‘The cat fur I put out for the birds starts to disappear for nest building’
‘I buy a fleece dog blanket from a charity shop and hang it over the fence. They start picking of the fleecy bits for their nests round about now.’
They’re not alone. I put my hair cuttings outside for the chaffinches, although I’d be the first to admit there are increasingly lean pickings for them these days!
Interestingly, bird migration as a sign of seasonal change plays a much smaller role in spring than it does in autumn. While there’s an implicit acknowledgement of internal British migratory movements when lapwings, oystercatchers and skylarks are mentioned, only three people explicitly mention international bird migration. While geese arrivals were mentioned by 10% of all respondents in autumn, their departure is completely absent as a spring indicator. That’s understandable given they leave these shores in a more subtle, staggered fashion than when they arrive. Similarly swallows, whose autumn departure was mourned by many in autumn, are mentioned by just one person as a sign of spring. Other birds arrive earlier, such as ospreys and chiffchaffs, and therefore get one mention each.
The most popular animal sign after bird behaviour is the appearance of frogspawn, but it’s mentioned by only 3% of respondents. Only one person mentions toads crossing roads, and only one person mentions the insect world – a solitary bumblebee.
On the farm, lambs are a key indicator of spring for 6% of people, which for one person coincides with:
‘Our hens coming back in to lay.’
But don’t rush to take your spring cues from the farming world because:
‘Farming folklore in Lincs used to say that spring wasn’t here and crops couldn’t be sown until the soil didn’t feel cold when one’s bare arse was sat on it!’
Weather and light
13% of respondents are searching for light at the end of the winter tunnel, not least because it has an impact on outdoor activities and routines:
‘When I wake up and it’s not pitch black outside’
‘When I can cycle home from work with my lights!’
‘Not worrying as much about how long for a walk in the hills’
And for one person winter is clearly insufferable:
‘The day AFTER the shortest day in December.. my heart skips’
Longer days also mean more solar energy reaching us, which prompts changes in weather and temperature. Surprisingly though, only eight people refer to either of those specifically, and then mostly in relation to clothing:
‘First time I don’t need a scarf!’
‘When the days are good enough for me to get my washings out on the line’
Someone makes reference to the mean daily temperature rising over 6C, which is significant as it’s the point at which vegetation tends to grow again, and there is palpable excitement at the prospect of things warming up on the hills:
‘When the warmth of the sun hits your face en route to a summit and you have stripped all layers off down to a t-shirt and think ‘I could tan in this!’
However, as one person puts it:
‘Don’t cast a cloot till may is out’
Meaning, don’t pack your winter clobber away just yet because it will probably snow next week, which undoubtedly delays spring’s arrival for some people:
‘In Scotland we get snow in April so confused.com’
‘Still snow in our garden here in Strathspey so spring is still a while away.’
Smell and feel
Smell was a strong seasonal indicator for people in autumn and it seems to be equally important in spring:
‘Smell returns to the world’
At the end of winter some people are clearly emerging from a sensory desert, while others are on the lookout for very specific smells that are conspicuous in their daily routines:
‘The smell of wild garlic on my ride home.’
But for a few people all those new smells combine to produce something they can’t quite put their finger on:
‘There’s a tangible magic in the air. You can smell it’
For some though, seasonal transition is felt inside themselves rather than through specific signs or dates. Such feeling is doubtless provoked and informed (both consciously and subconsciously) by the natural changes underway around them, and that realisation can either occur gradually….
‘Spring, like all the seasons, is a sense of change. It does not have a date but rather a feeling of renewal, light and hopefulness.’
….or it can occur abruptly:
‘To me it feels like a switch being thrown. 10:45 and it’s winter? 10:46 and spring has sprung. I know this sounds ridiculous but I seem to notice it most years.’
It’s also worth mentioning that a small number of people are unwilling or unable to pin spring down to dates or signs:
‘Natural signs off kilter with climate change’
‘I think it’s winter all year round in UK. Seasons have morphed’
‘No longer as clearly defined as when I was younger.’
There’s a sense from some that the natural world is in a state of flux, that natural signs can no longer be relied upon to demarcate the seasons. This isn’t surprising when daffodils are flowering in December, migratory birds are arriving earlier and some species are becoming locally extinct.
So… when does spring start?
Like last time there is no right or wrong here. But it’s interesting that few people cite just one spring sign, instead opting for a small list of things that together create a whole. Someone sums it up nicely with:
‘Nothing to do with a date it’s more of how everything comes together.’
For some people though, the sequence in which ‘everything comes together’ is clearly important. The ‘snowdrop then crocus then daffodil’ sequence comes up a couple of times, as does ‘song thrush then blackbird then skylark’. But I like this one the best because of how one thing leads to another:
‘When I notice that the days are getting longer, because I can enjoy sunlit walks morning and evening. Then I notice that there’s more birdsong. Then when green things are starting to pop up from the ground I know that I’m right and it is actually Spring.’
My general impression however, is that after a period of inertia, darkness and cold, people are revelling in the sense of:
‘Everything starting to come alive.’
That in turn seems to stimulate a similar reawakening in us too. Spring signs appear to be a natural alarm clock for many people, signalling that they should be ramping-up their activities and getting outdoors again.
‘It’s also the time that I should start planning my next hike in the Highlands’
Beware, though! This is Scotland, so we’ll probably have to hit the snooze button on that alarm clock once or twice in most years:
‘I think spring is always a bit start stop’
‘Remember winter comes back after spring starts in the north! Not unusual to see daffodils in snow’
‘Almost caught a whiff the other day, but it was fleeting’
None of that is unusual of course, and it’s only natural that we will get false starts. But what I do find incredible when I look at the earliest and latest spring signs mentioned in the survey is that because snowdrops can flower as early as January, and bluebells as late as May, depending on where you are and what you’re looking for spring can start at any time in a massive four month window.
Thanks again to everyone who submitted a response. It was greatly appreciated!