This long and bitter winter has tested the resilience of life all across the land, from lambing ewes to hatching birds and buds. But what of its toll on us?
A hall of fame for creatures able to withstand the wildest extremes of weather would almost certainly be graced by puffins, Welsh mountain sheep and hill farmers. This week, however, violent easterly winds and drifting snow made a mockery of spring, and battered the most resilient living things in Britain.
A "wreck" of more than 500 puffins occurred on eastern Scotland, the biggest mass fatality since 1947. Welsh mountain sheep, and other equally hardy breeds, have been smothered by Easter snowdrifts on high ground from Snowdonia to the Isle of Man that recall the gruesome winter of 1963. And a week of digging into 35ft snowdrifts in search of lambing ewes has brought tears to the eyes of the hardiest farmers.
During the early Easter of 1913, the poet Edward Thomas rode his bicycle from London to the Quantock Hills in Somerset, writing the classic In Pursuit of Spring. One hundred years on, our search for spring is increasingly desperate at the end of probably the coldest March for 50 years, following the wettest year ever recorded in England. If this vicious, dull grey chill is destroying our hardiest creatures, what is it doing to the rest of us?
"It is not yet spring. Spring is being dreamed," wrote Thomas, and talk of Easter bunnies and blossom certainly feels like a fantasy when the landscape shivers as if it were early February. Phenologists, who study the timing of biological events, say that flowers, insects and birds are up to five weeks behind recent years. And the Met Office predicts another month of below-average temperatures, an interminable extension to what naturalist Richard Mabey calls "a long, tedious, taxing late winter". One word keeps cropping up in conversations with farmers, scientists and thinkers about spring: resilience. Our economy – heading triple-dipwards – may not have it, but wild things are more tenacious. And in times of climatic uncertainty, it is required more than ever.
Farmers have borne the brunt of what the Germans are calling the "100-year winter". Gareth Wyn Jones farms 3,500 sheep with his father, three uncles and three cousins in the Carneddau Mountains of north Wales. Has he ever known weather like it? "Never. Never," he says. "I'm not exaggerating, it's a bloody disaster."
With the help of his dog, Cap, who sniffs out where sheep are buried in snow, he dug his last live ewe from a drift on Thursday morning. Its eyes had been pecked out by crows; a stillborn lamb hung from its behind. He carried the ewe down the mountain and now is "skinning" lambs. He takes the skin off a dead lamb and wraps it around a live orphan to enable it to be accepted, and suckled, by the dead lamb's mother. "I'm physically absolutely wrecked and mentally exhausted, as well," says Wyn Jones. His cousin has lost a stone in four days of sheep search-and-rescue.
Edward Thomas would struggle to make poetry from the past 12 months. A year ago, there were drought conditions, then months of rain. Last year's grass was poor quality (too moist); this year there is none, forcing farmers to buy expensive feed where they would normally rely on their own silage and hay.
Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, says there has been a trend towards the outdoor lambing of the old days in recent years, encouraged by the money and energy-saving practices extolled by New Zealand farmers – and a run of mild winters. "Over the last five years or so we've had drier winters and quite nice early springs. People were lulled into a false sense of security about springs going this way and it being more conducive for lambing outside. Farmers who have done that this year have been really caught out badly."
Like every species, farmers are struggling to adapt to weird weather. The timing of ewes' giving birth is governed by centuries of wisdom. "Suddenly the weather changes and these wild extremes catch you out," says one Lake District hill farmer. Stocker agrees, and argues that resilience comes from diverse, mixed farms where farmers don't put all their eggs in one basket, but adds: "At the moment our markets and striving for centralised efficiency don't allow that."
Conservationists repeat the resilience mantra when talking about wildlife and rough weather. "The fact that they've all survived tens of thousands of years means they are adaptable, but it's a question of limits, and which species will be the winners and which will be the losers," says Dr Kate Lewthwaite of the Woodland Trust, which manages Nature's Calendar, the longest running biological record of its kind. The calendar, where anyone can log their first sightings of key spring events, began with Robert Marsham, an 18th-century naturalist who recorded 27 signs of spring (the first leafing of ash; the first cuckoo) at his Norfolk home for 62 years. His family carried on his record-keeping until 1958, when modern-day phenologists took over.
They have discovered that biological spring has shifted forwards by nearly 12 days in the 30 years up to 2005. Scientists are trying to work out how well different species adapt to this – as well as unpredictable weather. "Species vary very much in their ability to be flexible in the timing of activities," says phenologist Steve Thackeray of the Centre of Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). Studies by the British Trust for Ornithology found that blue tits have brought forward their average laying dates by 11 days since the 1960s, so that chicks hatch when there is food – the caterpillars feeding on new spring leaves.
This year, the chilled eggs of early nesters such as blackbirds, robins and long-tailed tits will never hatch, while hibernating animals will struggle to make it through such a long winter. "I suspect that insects will be absolutely hammered, and there will be a knock-on effect for nesting birds because food will be in short supply," says Lewthwaite. She predicts populations will rapidly recover, as long as they are not buffeted by further extremes. Weather alone is not a problem, but climate may be. And we have made many species vulnerable to extremes by confining them to tiny nature reserves.
"It's been a horrible week for British wildlife," says Barnaby Smith of CEH. The most obvious victims have been the puffins, killed by relentless onshore gales. "It's just the wind knocking the stuffing out of them," says Professor Mike Harris, who has studied them on the Isle of May since the 60s. "It's very emotive and sad, but the impact on the population remains to be seen."
Perhaps the least resilient creature at the end of a long, dark winter is us. "In winter we become trapped, not just in our own houses, but within our own minds. Spring gives us a chance to escape. It is not just about personal rebirth; spring offers a lucidity that is quite wonderful," says Matthew Oates of the National Trust, who is presenting a Radio 4 documentary this weekend celebrating the centenary of Thomas's search for spring.
In this miserable March, Mabey, whose new book, Turned Out Nice Again, is a timely response to our mixed-up weather, is finding "even people I wouldn't regard as wimpish" complaining of "a deep physical ache" from the long absence of sun. "People are losing hope," he says. "The dashing of expectations that one has at this time of year for the reappearance of certain flowers and birds undermines your belief in the future." He fears for our ability to cope if "worse weather" is now our lot. "We can adapt to the snow and bright sunlight much better than bitter winds and grey skies. I couldn't come up with an answer as to how homosapiens could cheerfully live under grey skies and bitter winds.
"Whatever climate change does, we will still be an island with the Atlantic on one side and a continental land mass on the other," says Mabey. "This produces instability, whatever the weather."
The only consolation is one immutable fact: even if winter rages into April, it cannot stop the march of spring. "Even in my blackest moods I don't believe that the trees will fail to put out leaves in July," agrees Mabey. "They have been through this before."
Matthew Oates is doing his best to savour what he describes as a slow spring. "With a rapid spring, like 2011, you can spend a week on a training course and you've missed it. We get cheated by spring when it comes too quickly and gushes headlong into summer. A slow spring, which is what we are getting now, is more profound. We appreciate it all the more because of the yearning to escape winter."
As Oates notes, Thomas understood our need to bury winter. When spring finally arrived, Thomas celebrated the song of a chiffchaff for sounding, he wrote, "as if every note had been the hammering of a tiny nail into winter's coffin".