Change Alley

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The Father Of Phenology

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27th January 2008 marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Robert Marsham, the founding father of phenology, the study of the timing of natural events in relation to climate. Marsham is best known for the phenology notes he started making in 1736 on his family estate near Norwich, and continued writing for over 60 years. His ground-breaking work developed into the 27 ‘Indications of Spring’ which were eventually reported to the Royal Society in 1789. Successive generations of his family added to his work and this information now provides over two centuries’ worth of priceless data to the UK phenology database.

In a rapidly warming world, it is more vital than ever to know how the natural world responds to climate in order to predict the consequences for the future. The Marsham records show how responsive Spring events are to temperature. For example, trees come into leaf 8 days earlier for each 1°C increase in temperature. Furthermore, these records warn us that not all species respond at the same rate, with potential for conflict in the natural world. For example, Hawthorn appears very responsive to warming temperatures but Beech much less so. Similarly, Oak has the advantage over Ash in warmer springs, suggesting that it will become increasingly unlikely for Ash to precede Oak as the climate warms.

So, what species should be selected when planting new woodland? Woodland consists of communities of plants and animals that live in support of or in competition with one another. That Oak is taking greater advantage of a warming climate suggests that there may well be a change in the competitive balance in woodland in the years ahead. Phenology has travelled a long way from its roots as a means of optimising timber production on Marsham’s Norfolk estate, to become a key decision-making tool for conservation organisations in determining appropriate responses to climate change.

Robert Marsham’s Tricentenary Celebrations website

Nature’s Calendar

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