Posted on: April 3rd, 2015
From our earliest history, people have measured their world and lives using the seasons, the stars and natural events like the tides. For thousands of years the knowledge of when natural events happened was a part of the ordinary lives of people who lived and worked on the land, but there was little wider understanding of nature’s calendar and what it tells us about our world and environmental change.
Our understanding of how to read nature’s calendar began to grow only when people shared their knowledge so that one person’s observation of a natural event in one place and at one time could be compared with other similar information. Like a jigsaw, we are only able to see the bigger picture when all the pieces are put together.
On the Pevensey Levels on the South Coast of Sussex, not far from the site of the Battle of Hastings one man opened our eyes to the understanding of natural events. William Markwick was a wealthy landowner who took a close interest in all aspects of the running of his farms and estate. In particular, he followed the lives of the wading birds that visited the marshes, the sea life and fishes of the coast and the wild flowers here on the marshes.
In painstaking detail, Markwick recorded when the birds arrived and left the marsh, when the wild plants flowered and when they set seeds. Today, Markwick’s three volumes of leather-bound ‘Calendar of Flora or Naturalist’s Journal’ can be seen at Hastings Museum. Pevensey today is as National Nature Reserve run by Natural England. It lies between Eastbourne and Bexhill-on-Sea.
Markwick also published his records in the Journal of the Linnean Society. By sharing his observations, other naturalists could examine his results and compare them with their own observations. Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne in Hampshire whose letters on natural history were published in his Natural History of Selborne included Markwick’s calendar as an appendix his book so that people could compare the two.
Inspired by Markwick, a growing number of 19th Century amateur naturalists and scientists began to amass a huge amount and range of biological data. In 1891, the Royal Meteorological Office began the first ‘National Programme of Phenological Recording’. With such a large amount of data, the patterns were beginning to help scientists understand more.
The scientific understanding of natural events continued through the 20th Century. Today, there is a large network of scientists, whose records come from all over the country and reflect the full range of wildlife from dolphins to mushrooms. Importantly, these observations now stretch reliably over decades and even centuries, allowing us to draw conclusions about long-term changes to our environment.
In 2010, a research review led by Dr Stephen Thackeray of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology synthesised the key lessons of the science of phenology. Some big themes about phenological science were covered in the review - the variable rigour of analysis and the differences in methods across different disciplines.
By examining these issues carefully, the main biological trends have been determined. In particular, we know that spring and summer events are markedly earlier and that there can be a mismatch between species needs and their habitats, or food sources because different species react differently to seasonal patterns.
Many of the observations are still made by amateurs and volunteers like William Markwick and the Royal Meteorological Society’s volunteers who provide vital information through projects such as the Woodland Trust’s Nature’s Calendar.
For over 200 years, amateur naturalists and professional scientists have taken inspiration from nature, recorded its patterns and activities. By sharing their records, telling the stories of their own experience and their conclusions, they have contributed to a wider collective knowledge.
By pooling together all of this information, collected by thousands of wildlife recorders, across the whole of the country and over long periods of time, nature has shown us much about the environment. We have observed changes in the natural environment supporting evidence for climate change and other changes to life around us.
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