On Shakespeare's turf, 'darling buds of May' bloom early

An unusually mild winter in Britain is confounding flora and fauna and putting 'homo lawnmowerus' to task in January.

Ahhh, the smell of freshly cut grass, the chiruping of the song thrush, the distant putt-putt of a lawnmower, the blossoming honeysuckle, and the first cheeky snowdrops and early crocuses poking up through the milky morning sun.

It's enough to make you think spring has sprung.

But hang on a minute. This is darkest January in rural England. It should be bleak midwinter, deep and crisp and even, with earth like iron - or at the very least a time of cold, inhospitable drizzle. In short, prime hibernation time for flora and fauna.

So what's going on?

Already this year, wildlife fans are reporting unusual out-of-season sightings of such phenomena as frog spawn, primrose, and homo lawnmowerus, that great grass-cutting wonder of suburban Britain.

Precocious bumble bees are already abuzz, and elders are bursting into bloom within three weeks of the winter solstice.

Shakespeare's 'darling buds of May' are coming earlier and earlier, it would seem. And all this after one of the hottest, sunniest, driest years on record in 2003 - which itself followed some of the wettest weather for 250 years - which came amid the warmest decade since records began in 1659. Temperatures have consistently been more than 1 degree Celsius higher than the long-term average.

"The temperatures have been a lot milder, there are buds out, bulbs coming through," says Sancha Tetlow of Britain's Meteorological Office. "We had a long dry period which, combined with it now becoming wetter and milder, has fooled the flora and fauna."

Global warming could be changing British weather, the touchstone of a nation and an eternal talking point.

Something dank and dreary that instilled a certain grit and stoicism in the British national make-up is about to become something altogether more thrilling. Last week, there was even a small tornado.

"The lines between the seasons are blurring," says Ms. Tetlow, "and the prediction is for warmer, wetter winters, more extreme storms, heavier downpours, and warmer drier summers."

It's good news for vineyards, intrepid insects, and gardeners with a taste for the exotic.

Climate change could transform the soft, verdant British landscape, says Chris Prior, head of horticultural sciences at the Royal Horticultural Society center at Wisley.

"It doesn't mean we'll be growing bananas in Sussex next year," Mr. Prior says, "but we will see more and more gardeners taking chances and getting away with it."

The downside, however, is that flood warnings have suddenly become a regular feature of daily weather reports. Rising water levels in certain parts have made some housing practically uninsurable. In other regions, drought is the threat. The combined impact could be severe.

One recent official report suggested that the quintessential English country garden and lawn could be at risk, waterlogged in the winter and parched in the summer.

And what of the impact on the most advanced species on these islands? Where will Brits be without their cold, gray drizzle; their inferior summers; their winter gloom that native Californian Gwyneth Paltrow recently described as "wearing."

"There are all sorts of potential knock-on effects on man," says Nick Collinson, a conservation expert with the Woodland Trust charity. "We are part of the natural world, and whatever happens there will affect us all."

On the upside, winter blues might be mitigated by ever earlier springs.

According to Mr. Collinson, spring is now starting as much as three weeks earlier than it did a generation ago.

Summer would take on a Riviera feel: Swiss scientists are predicting that the heat wave of 2003 could become the norm rather than the exception by the end of the century. (Mainland Europe, according to the same scientists, will have to endure positively Saharan heat by 2100).

On the downside, some experts are predicting that allergies could become more prevalent, some crops may be difficult to cultivate, arid sports fields may prove hard to prepare, and lawn devotees will be cutting their grass all year round.

It was Samuel Johnson, that prolific wordsmith, who noted that when two Englishmen meet, "their first talk is of the weather." Now at last, it seems, they will actually have something to talk about.

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