Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier every year. But rarely have the tinsel, baubles and lights springing up in the high streets seemed quite so incongruous.
For while we may be two weeks into winter, Britain’s gardens, parks and hedgerows are bursting with the signs of spring and summer — and a host of confused plants and animals.
The topsy-turvy weather saw this year’s Remembrance Sunday accompanied by real red poppies growing in hedgerows, apple blossom on trees and swallows arriving from Africa — all sights usually spotted earlier in the year.
According to the Met Office, September was the sixth warmest on record, while October was the eighth hottest. And in the past two weeks, the mercury has crept above 15c.
The mild autumn is the result of high pressure over Europe, which has sent warm southerly and south-westerly winds over the UK from Spain and the western Mediterranean.
This follows a remarkable year of weather — with a freezing, snowy winter, a hot early spring and a dismally grey and rainy summer. But the mild weather is unlikely to last much longer, and within weeks the country could be in the grip of another hard winter.
Which will come as a shock for these plants and animals that seem thoroughly baffled by our odd weather…
STRAWBERRIES AND RASPBERRIES
Normally associated with Wimbledon, this year these fruits were also ripening ready for Halloween. To the surprise of gardeners — but delight of blackbirds — strawberry plants have been bearing red October berries in Hampshire and Oxfordshire.
Without the usual summer netting, much of the fruit has been gobbled up by birds.
Allotment guru and author John Harrison said: ‘Autumn raspberries are also having a second flush. In our garden, they had finished by October — now they’re coming back.’
Butterfly lovers can’t remember an autumn quite like it. Normally, butterflies have gone by Bonfire Night. The five species that hibernate through winter as adults are in hiding, while their less hardy peers have been killed off by the cold.
But in the past few days, spotters have enjoyed a rash of sightings. In Wiltshire, large meadow browns were seen at the weekend — three weeks after they would usually vanish.
Elsewhere, entomologists have seen flights of rare brimstones, brown arguses and small coppers throughout October.
Richard Fox, of Butterfly Conservation, said the mild autumn could boost numbers in 2012: ‘It’s been a funny year and some of the late appearances may be connected to the warm spring.’
FLOWERS AND TREES
In recent weeks, apple blossom, magnolia flowers and honeysuckle blooms have appeared six months late — or early, depending on your point of view.
Elsewhere, roses are still in full bloom, buddleia flowers are attracting butterflies and bees, and grass verges are covered in yellow carpets of dandelions.
Perhaps the most striking sight has been the red poppies growing in Suffolk gardens and verges in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday.
According to Matthew Oates, of the National Trust: ‘The mild autumn, after the early spring and dismal summer, has fooled some plants into thinking it’s a second spring. Other plants have continued on from the summer. I’ve seen brambles re-flowering and there are loads of white dead nettles in flower.’
He believes that most plants will go through their second spring without long-lasting damage, although some will be wasting energy on blossom that will never fruit.
TOMATOES ON THE VINE
By the start of October, tomato-growers are usually picking their last unripe green fruits and turning them into chutney.
But those who left them on the vine in a sheltered spot will have been rewarded with an astonishing crop of autumn tomatoes, a month later than usual.
The extended season has provided some compensation after a fairly terrible year for tomatoes across Britain, thanks to the dreary July and August.
Our mild weather has led to an autumn explosion in the slug population.
If temperatures drop close to zero, they tunnel into the soil, or hide under snows and wait for warmer days. It can take just one mild January day for thousands to overrun a garden.
The current flush of slugs and snails has decimated winter and spring vegetables. But it means that song thrushes and blackbirds — which dine on them — will have a good start to winter.
The dark, cold days of November normally prompt a flurry of birds to leave the hedgerows and return to garden feeders and tables in search of food. But to the disappointment of nature lovers, tits, dunnocks, wrens and finches are staying away.
‘We’re getting lots of calls asking where the birds have gone,’ say the Royal Society for Protection of Birds. ‘But there is so much food out there in woods and farms that they don’t need to come to gardens yet.’
The bumper harvest of nuts and seeds will give finches, redpolls and siskins a good start to winter. But it is the smaller insect-eating birds, such as wrens, goldcrests and dunnocks, which will benefit most. Because tiny birds are most vulnerable to the cold, the extra helping of bugs, spiders and flies will boost numbers next spring.
The warm days have also persuaded some birds to stay in the UK, and a swallow, whose arrival usually signals the start of summer, was spotted at the RSPB reserve in Saltholme, Teesside.
That flash of iridescent colour from a dragonfly darting over a pond is one of the iconic images of summer. But species that would normally be killed off by chilly nights and frosts are still out. At least three species of dragonfly — the common darter, the migrant hawker and the southern hawker — have been spotted in the past few days, weeks after they should have vanished.
The creatures spend the winter in ponds and lakes as larvae. The mild autumn has given the females three or four extra weeks to lay eggs — and the more they lay now, the bigger the population next year.
FROGS AND CRICKETS
The dusk chirrups of frogs are usually heard in May and June, but at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust conservation project in London, the calls of marsh frogs along with crickets and grasshoppers have pierced the autumn evenings.
Richard Bullock, ecologist at the London Wetland Centre, said: ‘This sound is more associated with when the frogs breed, when they are territorial. I think the warm spell in October has fooled them into thinking spring’s turned up early.’
BEES AND WASPS
Young queen wasps have usually hidden themselves away for the winter by now. But the giant striped insects are still to be found crawling up curtains or across patios.
Normally, by mid-November, queen honey bees have stopped laying eggs and their colonies will have settled down for the winter. But this year, beekeepers say the queens are still active.