Phenology

The recording of recurring events in the lives of birds, animals, plants and insects belongs to the old-fashioned science of phenology. Once the hobby of committed naturalists and field clubs, it has become important in monitoring the advance of climate change and its impact on the natural world. Ireland has nothing to match the diligent nature diaries of some landed families in Britain, kept assiduously generation after generation and reaching back over 300 years.

Lesser Celandine
©Michael Viney

In the early 20th century, the Irish Naturalists’ Journal published some 10 years of records – more than 25,000 observations of such things as first flowering of plants and leafing of trees, first arrival of summer migrants, first birdsong, first insect, and so on. Matched to temperature, they showed that the response to spring warming in Ireland was, if anything, greater than in Europe, especially in wild native plants such as lesser celandine, wood anemone and hazel. There are also records of special groups of trees grown at the four ‘official’ phenological gardens in Ireland: Valentia, Co Kerry; the JFK Arboretum and Johnstown Castle in Co Wexford, and the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin.


As part of a Europe-wide network, they were planted some 40 years ago with clones of tree and shrub varieties, to see how virtually identical plants would respond to local climates. Beech and poplar are among the trees now leafing weeks earlier in spring in the south-west than they were 30 years ago. One thing my own budburst recording has brought home is how different are the habits of trees from different climates. The horse-chestnut and sycamore, as introduced ‘southern’ trees, break into leaf well ahead of native sessile oak and ash, both early veterans of Ireland’s frosty winters.

There are still many gaps in the range of species and geographical spread of Ireland’s phenological recording. To address this issue somewhat, researchers at Trinity College, Dublin, set up a special website with the National Biodiversity Data Centre based in County Waterford, where it was hoped that ‘citizen scientists’ among the public would record their observations. This website was superseded by a new phenological monitoring website, Nature Watch. The Nature Watch website provides a portal to a national network of detailed observations on Ireland’s wildlife to monitor the effects of climate change. It brings together the Irish Phenological Gardens and Native Tree Phenology recording networks, and enables members of the general public to contribute detailed observations of the changes that are already happening in Ireland as a result of climate change. More information can be found on the Trinity College Phenology web page.

There has been a similar, but independent, interactive website (www.biology.ie) that also promotes public interest and participation in biodiversity surveys. Many of these are closely concerned with climate change, such as the annual Butterfly Monitoring Scheme run by the NBDC (www.biodiversityireland.ie).


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