Science & Environment

Unusual number of UK flowers bloom

Common gorse Image copyright SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day.

They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom.

It raises further questions about the effects of climate change during the UK’s warmest year on record.

“This is extraordinary,” said Tim Rich, who started the New Year’s plant hunt for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

“Fifty years ago people looking for plants in flower at the start of the year found 20 species. This year the total has amazed us – we are stunned.

“During the holiday I drove along the A34 south of Newbury and saw half a mile of gorse in flower when gorse is supposed to flower in April and May. It’s bizarre.

“We are now in our fourth mild winter. Normally flowers get frosted off by Christmas but this year it hasn’t happened.”

He said 368 species in flower is an unprecedented 15% of the flowering plants in Britain and Ireland – an “amazing” total. The high count was partly due to the growth in the number of volunteers - but mostly due to climate change, he said.

Dr Rich said it was possible that plants in unseasonal flower might be badly hit if February brought very cold weather.

The Met Office has confirmed 2014 as the warmest year on UK record, with the wettest winter and the hottest Halloween. It is also the warmest year in the Met Office’s Central England Temperature series, which dates to 1659.

Their blog said: “Human influence on the climate is likely to have substantially increased the chance of breaking the UK and CET temperature records. Estimates from the Met Office suggest that it has become about 10 times more likely for the UK record to be broken as a result of human influence on the climate.”

The most commonly recorded plants in flower were daisy and dandelion, each of which was recorded in 115 lists (75%).

The mild south and west of Britain had the highest numbers of species still in flower, but there were 50 species identified in the east and north of England, and 39 species flowering in Edinburgh. In absolute numbers, Cardiff won with 71 species in flower and Cornwall came second with 70 species in flower.

Ryan Clark, who co-ordinated the New Year Plant Hunt, said: “It was astonishing to see so many records flooding in, from Guernsey to the Moray Firth and Norfolk to Donegal. Ireland had consistently high numbers of plants in flower too, with the average of about 20 – almost exactly on a par with Britain.

"The highest count in Ireland was 40 species flowering on Bull Island, in Dublin Bay. The west of Ireland also fared well, with Strawberry Tree in flower near Killarney, Co. Kerry."

Follow Roger @rharrabin