April’s cold snap: What it means for dormice, snakes, spring flowers – and energy consumption

Harry Cockburn
·7-min read
<p>A full moon sets over Little Cheyne Court Wind Farm on the Romney Marsh in Kent, on Monday, during the frostiest April for over 60 years</p> (PA)

A full moon sets over Little Cheyne Court Wind Farm on the Romney Marsh in Kent, on Monday, during the frostiest April for over 60 years


As lockdown 3 grinds to an end, the pub gardens may now be open, but even as we head into the month of May, sitting outside has practically become an endurance test as the UK is still in the grip of a seemingly ceaseless winter.

As well as pub-going humans, the cold dry weather is impacting animals and plants.

Cold dry days with clear skies and freezing nights have been the main themes during April, even though at the end of March the UK saw record high temperatures in many places across the country.

Over April the UK’s average temperature has been just 5.5C, which is 2C lower than average for the month, according to the Met Office. Cold nights mean average minimum temperatures are more than 3C lower than what they would be in an average month, and have hovered just above freezing.

But while temperatures briefly spiked in March, the month remained largely dry with well-below average rainfall. Over April, it has been drier still, with the UK receiving just 18 per cent of its average rainfall for the month so far.

In some areas such as the Midlands, it has been even drier. Leicestershire has had 97 per cent less rain than average for April – just 1.6mm of rain.

“It’s been very dry”, Met Office forecaster Grahame Madge told The Independent. “There hasn’t really been any rain this month.

“April has had the most frosts recorded in 60 or 70 years, and there are still more days to come, when we are also likely to see frosts.

“The weather pattern that has led to this is a run of cold northerly winds, at one point with air streaming in from the Arctic. When you get an area of high pressure – say to the west of the British Isles – as air goes around areas of high pressure clockwise, you get this big air mass sitting on the west, it can introduce a northerly feel, which is what we’ve had a few times.

“Those sorts of weather patterns have kept things cooler at night, but obviously with clear skies in April, the sun is quite high, so temperatures have been brought up by day, only to crash again the following night because the heat is radiating away into space.”

While some rain is forecast over the coming days, “we’re not expecting masses”, Mr Madge said.

“There will be some unsettled weather over the bank holiday weekend, but that will lead to colder conditions, and above 300-400 metres in Scotland there could be snow this week.

“It’s an indicator that we’re still seeing wintery conditions right at the end of the month.”

These unusual weather patterns can have significant impacts on wildlife in the UK, including species such as threatened populations of dormice, as well as birds, snakes, frogs and toads.

Ian Jelley, director of living landscapes at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, told The Independent: “The combination of a cold spring and a lack of rain over recent weeks will certainly have had an impact on our wildlife. For species that hibernate such as our native hazel dormice they need consistent weather patterns to ensure their survival.

“During the autumn they build up their fat reserves in order to sleep through the cold winter, emerging as the weather warms in the spring to wake up perfectly in time for a hearty meal. This year in February temperatures in some parts of the UK hit 18C over several days. That warmer weather may have woken hibernating species that then emerged to find no food as it was too early in the year. This meant that they used up vital fat reserves.

“As the temperature then plummeted those species may have gone back into hibernation. Dormice are very sensitive. They hibernate due to lack of food but between 40-70 per cent of them will die during hibernation.”

He said other species may also be facing challenges due to the warm spell followed by the return of freezing temperatures.

“The warmer weather earlier in the year may have encouraged frogs, toads and other amphibians to breed. In recent weeks night time temperatures have dropped below freezing and ponds that are frozen for prolonged periods will lose frogspawn tadpoles before they have a chance to grow into adults.”

He added: “The wider issue here is that we are facing both a climate and ecological emergency. Fifteen per cent of species in the UK are under threat from extinction and climate change is increasingly the likelihood of extreme weather events.

“Later in the year extended periods of rain could prevent barn owls from flying or extreme warm weather could threaten species like hedgehogs that need water and hunt for things like worms which are hard to come by if the ground dries up.”

He urged people to take action to help plants and animals survive. “The great thing is that everyone can help play their part in this,” Mr Jelley said.

“Whether you live in a tower block with a window box, have a garden, or visit a local park – everyone can make space for nature. With small actions each person provides a piece of the jigsaw to help us rebuild our broken natural world and support nature’s recovery.”

Stuart Edmunds, a mammal expert from the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, said: “Our snakes can be impacted by sudden cold snaps as their breeding patterns could either slow down or stop altogether. They need to keep their bodies warmed by the sun to be able to mate, so if the cold weather sets in, it will impact reproductive rates.”

And Lorienne Whittle from the Woodland Trust also said birds could be impacted by the unseasonably cold dry weather.

“A consequence of little rain is that the hard ground we’re seeing at the moment makes it trickier for birds to find food.

“Watching a blackbird hop up and down a grassy area and pull out a long worm to feed its young is something we have all been lucky enough to watch at some time. We know there’s lots of chicks out there wanting to be fed. However, the process of finding nice juicy worms is, quite literally, much harder for parent birds as the ground is simply too hard and the worms will retreat further down to stay moist.”

Guy Barter, chief horticulturist at the Royal Horticultural Society told The Independent that young plants would likely be the worst impacted by the lack of rain, while older plants would be able to access water deeper in the soil.

He said the cold April weather has delayed growth “so the season is about two weeks later than we would expect”.

“On the plus side there are very few weeds, and the lawn won’t need as much mowing while spring flowers are lasting longer than usual in the chilly conditions – cherries, daffodils, tulips for example. They tend to go over quickly if we have a warm spring.”

However, he warned recent frosts have probably done “serious damage to fruit trees including cherries, pears and plums, but apples just coming into flower may well escape the worst of the frosts according to current weather forecasts.”

Meanwhile, farmers said the cold dry weather could result in less grass for grazing animals.

NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts told The Independent: “The colder and drier conditions throughout April have impacted some farmers, particularly in the livestock sector, where slow grass growth has limited the availability of grazing for cattle and sheep.

“The prospects for crops that need irrigation such as fruit and vegetables are currently good as reservoirs are full as a result of heavy winter rainfall which left fields saturated and waterlogged. However, this situation will need to be kept under review.

“We will continue to monitor the situation across all regions and farming sectors and hope the forecast of much-needed rain over the next week comes off.”

According to the National Grid, electricity usage for March 2021 – the last month for which full data is available – demand was 14 per cent higher than it was during March 2020.

However, the carbon intensity of the energy used was lower, partly due to a higher level of renewable energy generation over the month.

In March 2020, 30 per cent of energy was produced by renewables, while last month 44 per cent came from renewables.

Carbon intensity – the level of CO2 emissions produced for each kilowatt hour of energy produced – fell from an average of 218gCO2/kWh to 185gCO2/kWh, a fall of 15 per cent.

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