Winter isn't coming: 'Chaos' for animals as climate change messes with seasons

Shorter winters mean dormice wake early from hibernation and red deer are born closer to winter

Britain's National Trust says a dormouse waking early is a worrying indicator of climate change. PA
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Animal behaviour is in chaos because climate change is interfering with the natural rhythm of the seasons, conservationists have said.

Dormice are waking early from hibernation in a sign of a shorter winter, meaning they have to use more energy than normal, according to Britain's National Trust.

The warmth is pushing back calving season for red deer, meaning babies are born closer to winter and have less time to grow and put on fat for the cold season.

Shorter winters also mean fewer cold snaps to kill off tree pests such as the oak processionary moth, which is spreading north from its traditional Mediterranean home.

These were described as “extremely worrying” signs by Ben McCarthy, the National Trust's head of nature and restoration ecology, who called the changes something “we should be taking more notice of”.

“The shifting weather patterns we’re seeing in the UK, particularly with the warmer temperatures we’re experiencing, is continuing to upset the natural, regular rhythm of the seasons, causing stress to wildlife and making it more susceptible to pests and disease,” he said.

“This loss of predictability causes chaos for the annual behaviours of animals in particular, but can also impact trees and plants.”

The trust said in an annual review that rangers and gardeners are mowing grass deeper into the year due to warmer conditions.

Shrubs have been budding early, exposing them to cold snaps while depriving insects of nectar during the summer.

There were also algal blooms – which can be harmful – and low water levels as early as January in the Lake District, as well as in Port Stewart, Northern Ireland, over the summer.

The Dubai climate deal agreed to by almost 200 countries this month stressed the importance of “conserving, protecting and restoring nature and ecosystems” in the fight against climate change.

But the impact of global warming is already becoming clear today, with wildlife such as salmon and coral reefs under threat as the world breaks temperature records.

If the world overshoots the key benchmark of 1.5°C of global warming, animals could go extinct with no hope of return even if temperatures eventually fall back down.

At 2°C of warming, what would previously have been a once-in-50-year heatwave would happen every three to four years, according to scientific estimates. At 3°C, it would happen most years.

In Britain, all 10 of the warmest years in history have come since 2003, with forecasters yet to reveal whether 2023 has been another new high.

The UK recorded its hottest June ever this year, with the River Derwent in the Lake District, traditionally one of England’s wettest areas, drying out for the third consecutive summer.

“In the near future, we are likely to experience a combination of drought and high temperatures as well as high rainfall and flood – and we need to get ready for this new norm,” said Keith Jones, national climate change consultant at the National Trust.

“Water is going to be key – not having enough and also not too much.”

Updated: December 27, 2023, 12:01 AM