April showers? Not likely

With warmer than averages temperatures for April and more sunshine hours than normal since the start of the year, has spring sprung too early this year? And will the warm weather last into summer?

With warmer than averages temperatures for April and more sunshine hours than normal since the start of the year, has spring sprung too early this year? And will the warm weather last into summer? Katy Evans reports.

DRIP drip drop little April showers, beating a tune as you fall all about,” says the opening line to the Disney song from Bambi. But April is half way through so where the rain? Not only has this April been one of the driest on record, with little more than a few millimetres of rainfall across the region, but higher than average temperatures have brought on the spring with leaps on bounds.

Last weekend certainly gave people a taste for summer, with top temperatures of 23 degrees recorded on Saturday at the weather station at Broom's Barn agricultural research centre, near Bury St Edmunds.

Jim Bacon, from WeatherQuest, based at the University of East Anglia, says April has been particularly dry. WeatherQuest uses the statistics from Broom's Barn to provide forecasts to 18 local radio stations as well as newspapers including the East Anglian Daily Times and The Times.

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“I can't see there being any rain for the next ten days. There'll be lots of dry weather for the rest of the month,” he said.

This is echoed by the BBC's five-day, online forecast that shows sun, sun and more sun over the coming weekend for most of Suffolk and Essex, with temperatures between 13 and 18 degrees C.

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But although patio furniture and barbeque equipment is burgeoning from the shelves in every DIY store, is the warm weather here to stay or are we jumping the gun and hoping for the best?

“It has been a very mild and warm start right through from January, with temperatures above average,” said Jim.

Compared to 30-year averages compiled between 1961 and 1990, January's temperatures were 3.6 degrees (Celsius) above average, with rainfall up 21% over average and sunshine up 34%; February's temperatures were 2.7 degrees above normal, with average rainfall up 80% and sunshine levels staying at the average level for that time of year; while March saw 61% more sunshine than average, slightly less rainfall and average temperatures at 2.3 degrees higher than normal.

Jim thinks the temperatures are “not too surprising” considering the higher than average rainfall, which comes over on south-westerly winds that produce a “fair amount of cloud, which makes it warmer”.

But he also thinks it's quite likely we will see a cold snap in May. “There is the possibility of frost later on. Warmer weather in spring doesn't mean we won't get cold snaps in early summer. It would not be unusual to get ground frost in May or June,” said Jim, although he thinks any frost would have to be prolonged in order to do much damage to crops, as the above average sunshine we have so far had means the soil will have retained energy “like a night storage heater”.

“Most people's gardens have started spring in good shape, with water in the ground. But probably some of the winter bugs have kept going through as there hasn't been a sharp frost to kill them off,” he said.

Ipswich-based Karen Kenny, gardening guru on BBC Radio Suffolk and Vice Chairman for Suffolk Allotments, agrees about the bugs. “We've been getting several doses of Cabbage White Butterflies as they have not been killed off by frost - it's warm enough for them to reproduce. And Lily Beetles are already around so watch out for those,” she warns.

Karen points to other signs of an early spring with the frogs spawning earlier and swarms of bees buzzing about. “Everything has come at least a couple of weeks early.”

But in agreement with Jim, Karen says there is still the possibility of frost. “We have had frosts as late as June, so beware. Our climate is just not stable.”

Karen's top tips for gardeners at this time of year include watering shrubs, which can be prone to drying out due to so much prolonged sunshine, and buying a water butt for the garden. Karen is also hosting a programme next Saturday on BBC Radio Suffolk about the importance of conserving water and how to do so.

Allotment holder Peter Wilding, assistant secretary at the Belstead Allotment field in Ipswich, says some people started planting earlier this year. “Those that have put seeds in already have benefited as they have germinated quicker, but only because we've had the right weather. I put my potatoes in at the usual time but they have come up about two weeks earlier than usual. It's because the soil stayed warmer over the winter.”

Suffolk resident and East Anglian Daily Times countryside columnist Peggy Cole, certainly thinks spring has arrived early this year. She, like Karen, cites examples of swarming bees.

“I had friends over at the weekend who had had a swarm of bees in their garden. As the saying goes, 'A swarm of bees in May is worth a bale of hay, a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon …' but I don't know what we'll say for a swarm in April! I've never heard of a swarm of bees in April before - it's quite unusual.”

Peggy saw the first signs of spring back in January - “there were two daffodils out in my garden. Only two but still” - and spoke of the struggle to fill the church with Easter flowers this year as most of them had died off by then. Other early blooms have been Magnolia, Japonica and Blackthorn, which were out at the end of March.

“Blackthorn is not normally out until the end of April. Most of the flowers have been a good three weeks early.

“They say that when the blackthorn is out you're in for some cold weather but that hasn't been the case this year - so far.”

But rather than believing the warm weather is here to stay, Peggy, who has known it to snow in June, is erring on the side of caution.

“Years ago you could get frost late May. And they say that what weather they get in the United States we get here; well the US has just had the worst cold weather for a century, so we could well get a cold spell.”

One year, Peggy attended the Suffolk Show (usually held in the last week of May) and said the frost had killed all the bedding plants. “It could happen again this year. It's always good to be on your guard. I don't think we are out of the woods yet.”

Higher than average rainfall in January and February may have put paid to April showers but the saying about 'not casting a clout until May is out' may yet prove to be true.

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