Despite the cold and snowy weather we had at the start of January, I continue to be heartened by signs of spring. Fluffy grey sallow catkins have been spotted around the edge of Portrack Marsh, I’ve seen male ‘lambs’ tails’ catkins and even the tiny pink star-shaped female catkins on hazel bushes on the walk from the Thirteen headquarters to Tilery Primary School in Stockton and snowdrops are appearing along the riverside at Egglescliffe and between Low and High Coniscliffe as well as in local green spaces such as Linthorpe Cemetery. While I feel so much better for seeing these harbingers of warmer times to come and I’m enjoying the gradual lightening of mornings and nights, there is a slight unease about how early we are seeing these seasonal reference points.

I was able to collect some felled willow branches from RSPB Saltholme on New Year’s Day this year, cut down to clear out an area of scrub and left on the ground and have enjoyed their ‘pussy willow’ catkins in a vase since, with some even flowering and showing their yellow pollen-laden stamens. And it is this which is causing me concern. Flowering willow catkins and other early flowers such as dandelions and snowdrops are all vital sources of pollen and nectar for hibernating insects that usually wake up in March to start their breeding cycle, such as wasps, bumblebees and hoverflies. If the plants are responding to milder winters by flowering so early, what will the insects have to feed on when they finally make an appearance? Sometimes the two can coincide, I spotted a queen bumblebee at the coast on Christmas Day 2016 and there were flowers around for it to feed on but still, the natural order of things is being distorted. Scientists have called on everybody to help plot these changes by recording sightings on the Nature’s Calendar website, which helps the experts to see how spring is progressing and correlate this with climate change.

The Tees Valley is not immune to these changes so please take time to make a note of what you see over the coming weeks on your river walks, register with Nature’s Calendar to record these and put the River Tees on the national nature map.