Recording Nature’s Calendar

Logo: Woodland Trust

Volunteers for the Nature’s Calendar project at the Woodland Trust provide valuable evidence of the effect of climate change on our wildlife. Kate Lewthwaite, project manager, explains why and how to get involved.

Weather has always been a hot topic for the great British public. Keeping track of seasonal changes and how conditions differ from one year to the next is all part of our national fascination.  

Blackbird (iStock)
Blackbird (iStock)

As conservationists, the thoughts we might mull over as we enjoy the outdoors could be ‘I wonder how the winter just gone will affect bird populations’ ‘wow, that’s an early bluebell’ or ‘strange, I haven’t seen any butterflies yet this year…’   If this describes your interests then the Nature’s Calendar survey run by the Woodland Trust ( is worth exploring.

The survey tells how seasonal variations affect common wildlife species. The detail behind these stories is only possible through the enthusiasm of volunteers from across the UK who record the signs of the seasons where they live: in spring perhaps noting wildflowers in their garden, insect or bird activity in their nearest park or the leafing of trees in a local wood. In autumn they might look for departing migratory birds, the abundance of autumn fruits or when leaves begin to tint and fall.

A phenological record from Jean Combes who has been recording the same oak tree for over 60 years, clearly showing the advancement in leafing date during this period.
A phenological record from Jean Combes who has been recording the same oak tree for over 60 years, clearly showing the advancement in leafing date during this period.

Known as the science of ‘phenology’ the project is user-friendly for complete beginners who can note a few easily-recognisable species. Equally there is a valuable place for the data sent in by our ‘expert recorders’ who can confidently identify our full species list of around 70 examples of common flora and fauna and track their activity throughout the year.

Blackthorn (WTPL/Carole Sutton)
Blackthorn (WTPL/Carole Sutton)

The immediate benefit to all participants is that you can see your records on the ‘live tracking maps’ on the website, along with those from others illustrating how the seasons sweep across the country.

Michael Knaggs, scientist and committed Nature’s Calendar recorder, explains what he gains from taking part: ‘I enjoy recording because it helps me to make sense of what is happening in the natural world throughout the year. There are many different things to look for, but recording timings for nature’s calendar puts everything into a convenient natural order. It shows me what to look for and when the right time is to do so.’

Recording 'nature's calendar' has moved from being a leisure pastime for Victorian naturalists, to a crucial source of scientific evidence as to how wildlife is responding to climate change. The Woodland Trust is custodian to a dataset stretching back 300 years, making it the longest written biological record of its kind. Comparing today’s records with historic ones highlights dramatic changes over the years.

Overall, in spring, compared to 30 years ago, insects are being seen on average three weeks earlier, plant growth is up to two weeks earlier and bird activity is a week earlier.

As the climate warms, the growing season is also extending later into autumn. These changes will have many implications for our wildlife, being advantageous for some and detrimental for others, impacting food chains and vulnerable life cycles. It is, as yet, far from clear who will be the eventual winner and losers. As well as changed phenology, typical responses might include a change in species’ overall abundance and/or geographic range.

Project data has featured in reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and is a key indicator used by the UK government to monitor the health of the natural environment. More than 30 academic articles have been written with the Trust’s scientific partner, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Findings from the project are also regularly featured on national TV, radio and in newspapers.

Online map showing snowdrop sightings so far this year
Online map showing snowdrop sightings so far this year

For the Woodland Trust, it backs our call to double native UK woodland cover to help make our wildlife more able to cope.

The project has 60,000 followers who value its findings; a few thousand people go one step further and record, but currently a mere two hundred send in the majority of the data which provides the mainstay of scientific credibility to the project.

All recorders are most welcome, even a single sighting is of value and at this time of rapid climate change has never been more important. Please take part and add your skills and knowledge to this worthy cause. Job-hunters might find this evidence of volunteering a useful addition to their CV.

Highlights to look out for and record during February include: first flowering in blackthorn and hazel, blackbirds starting to build nests, departing redwings, first frogspawn and first ladybirds.

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First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Scottish Countryside Rangers Association, the Countryside Management Association and NATUR on 18 February 2013