Gordon ponders the handover of the seasonal reins as February turns to March, plus prospects for the week ahead.
Though black the woodland tracery
The sky above is blue,
Twigs like pencilled scribble
With sunrays breaking through;
Within a world of tree trunks
which In radiant olive green
There’s aconites with glossy leaves
And bright mosses in-between;
We see eternal magic here –
Farewell to winter harsh,
On Nature’s stage the way is clear
For spring to steal a march!
This poetic scene from Leap – Day Woods, written on the February 29, 1996 may help to bring a certain poignancy to the character of the present season as February hands over the seasonal reins of nature to March. Theoretically, every farmer and country dweller stands poised for the busy days ahead, knowing that the workings of the soil for springtime cultivations this year will hold many unknown factors in the wake of 2012.
There was a time when the workings of the fields were governed by the rule-of-thumb measure of daylight: “Six till six on the 1st March,’’ which, even today, is a welcoming legend, almost as though it remains a bench-mark for the start of operations on the land. In the case of the present season there has been virtually no chance of the farmers’ premeditated springtime activity on the land in early- to mid-February. For several seasons in recent decades, February’s weather has provided favourable opportunities to accomplish sowing and seasonal work weeks ahead of the normal schedule. It did not necessarily mean that you were acting against your better judgement, but merely that nature made you act the way you felt, grasping opportunity by the forelock.
Strange, and sometimes quite incredible circumstances, have occurred in the relationship of land work and the weather between February and March. For example, as long ago as the 1960s, who could have resisted making an early start on the land when backed by the supporting fact that in February 1962 many acres of spring corn had been sown on the lighter land – at least, before that particular “winter” started on February 22 and lasted until the end of March! However, remember what the old agricultural philosopher Tusser said centuries ago: “Error is a hardy plant, it flourisheth in every soil.” Very true, because things are not always what they seem. In fact, to illustrate the point, it is interesting to reflect on what happened during the late winter and early spring of 1964 from my own farming and weather records of that year. Unlike the present circumstances, it had been a phenomenally dry start to 1964 (following a dry winter). The total rainfall for January was only 7.5mm (0.31in), followed by February with 4.5mm (0.18 in), the first 14 days being completely rainless, the wettest being the 18th, 3.8mm (0.15 in) in the form of snow. This in effect was a record low total, 12mm (0.49in) for the first two months of the year, the previous lowest for the corresponding period being 36mm (1.44in) in 1949. With such forward conditions, many acres of spring corn had been sown on the lighter soils, but none on our stronger land. My diary entry for February 24, 1964, reads: “Rifts, furrows, and lines of snow have gradually receded from the ploughed land, leaving the pulverised clods as grey as they were before the snow came. The present state of dryness has reached outstanding proportion.” Consequently, with the cold spell lasting until the end of February, in terms of keen night frosts and crisp sunny days, allowing the “in-out-frost and thaw” working of the soil, it seemed very probable that the land was going to present ideal and progressive seedbeds for the traditional month of sowing, March.
Sadly, lessons were to be learned, perhaps ironically reflected in the logic of the Scottish farmer: “Nae hurry wi’ yer corns, nae hurry wi’ your harrows; Snaw lies ahint the dyke, mair to come and fill the furrows!’’. Following the departure of February, the seasonal pendulum of time ceased to function, in fact, it went backwards, as quite a prolonged spell of wintry weather dominated the weather of March.
Considerable damage was done to the early sown fields by the flocks of rooks searching the frosted fields for food. At that particular time, it was reckoned that there could have been little economic advantage in having the work of February so seriously plundered by hoards of ravenous rooks. With the mean daily temperature of March 1964 being only 38F (3.5C) against the normal 43F (6C) surface soil temperatures failed completely, resulting in the worms and grubs (the rooks’ natural food) burrowing into the deeper layers beneath the surface. In many respects the sowings of February became the feeding grounds of March that year. On the stronger land farms, ours included, it seemed ironical that following such a dry winter, not one single acre of corn had been drilled before the traditional first day of spring, March 21.
In all fairness, today’s field husbandry in the interests of spring cultivations has obviously made rapid strides, especially with the “single pass‘’ technology in which multiple cultivation is so easily achieved in just one operation. Nevertheless, the chances of a good harvest are still based with a fair amount of reliance on our future weather conditions. The past abnormalities of high rainfalls and high water tables we can do nothing about, it is all down to the opportunities of the coming weeks.
Nowadays, it is firmly believed that some of the old sayings and husbandry maxims alluding to field sowings are now completely obsolete because they merely referred to “drillings” as it was done (much of it by hand sowing) some 200 years ago. Ironically perhaps, there is just one old saying that even today, just gently reminds us that the state of the soil can be a law unto itself, even in the modern laggard springtime: “When the elmen-leaf is as big as a mouse’s ear, then sow the barley never fear!”.
PROSPECTS FOR THE WEEK AHEAD
The cold high pressure blockade which has given us winds from Scandinavia recently is expected to sink slowly southwards, resulting in an extensive anticyclone probably centred over southern Britain by the end of this current week. Atlantic frontal systems will wheel around the fringes of this high, weakening in most cases and producing very little in the way of rainfall. Wind directions will become more westerly for some days, encouraging day temperatures to rise slowly towards seasonal average.
A fairly dry start to March, with variable daytime cloudiness and sunny spells which will raise temperatures up to 46-50F (8 -10C). Occasional scattered showers from passing fronts, but rainfall expected to be slight, as westerly winds produce drying conditions. Overnight frosts are still likely, down to 27Fm(-3C).