Robert Marsham’s fascination with natural history led him to record annually the first occurrences of seasonal events, an activity called phenology. He kept records of weather and temperatures; tree foliation, crop progress, and migrating birds.
In 1736 he commenced the series of records that he developed into 27 “Indications of Spring”. These included flowering dates of four species, leafing dates for thirteen trees, the arrival or first song of migrant birds, and signs of the breeding activity of rooks, and of frogs and toads. He looked out for the first snowdrops, first swallows and butterflies, and listened for the first cuckoos.
These findings were reported to the Royal Society in 1789, the same year as the publication of Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History of Selborne’. Later his findings were summarised in a broadsheet by his friend Lord Suffield and generated much interest in the recording of phenology.
Robert had the vision to begin to realise the significance of seasonal change.
On his death in 1797, the Indications of Spring were continued by successive members of the same family, right down until 1958. They represent the longest such record in the UK, and have been inspirational in phenological recording in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Robert Marsham was a meticulous recorder; he is still the only observer of the wallcreeper in Norfolk. Several of his records are of species now very rare, for example the nightingale, the bittern and the nightjar (then known as the goatsucker). Surprisingly, one of his flowering records is for turnips, but perhaps we now forget that this was a Norfolk speciality, and a vital crop for supplying winter fodder to farm animals.
What about Phenology Today?
In these days of global warming and devastation from floods, storms and other weather extremes, scientists have become nature’s own monitoring detectives.
The reasons are obvious and self-explanatory as nature responds to man’s carbon footprint and growth in CO2 emissions.
Thousands of people across the British Isles are now very active monitoring the seasons with the UK Phenology network.
Visit their website on: www.phenology.org.uk