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Meet our Volunteer of the Year 2015, Professor Tim Sparks

There is so much to celebrate about Professor Tim Sparks, named as this year's Overall Volunteer of the Year, and the important work he has undertaken.

In the late 1990s, Dr Tim Sparks was a biological statistician working for the government research agency the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) near Cambridge.

He started studying data collected from 1736 onwards by Robert Marsham, a landowner in Norfolk. Marsham called his records the 'Indications of Spring' and they included noting when trees came into leaf and when migratory birds were first seen. This science of the timing of natural events is called phenology. Marsham's family continued recording in the same location into the 20th century.

Tim realised these records provided a powerful story about how the timings of seasonal events was changing as a result of climate change and published scientific research.

Phenomenal phenology

Realising that this science of phenology had not continued to the present day, Tim restarted a phenology network in 1998 with his colleagues and friends. This proved phenomenally popular and, by the year 2000, overwhelmed by the interest and unable to manage all the volunteers who had come forward, he approached us. Nature’s Calendar was born as a collaborative project between the Woodland Trust and CEH with Tim acting as science advisor and media spokesman from the project’s inception.

Following restructuring at CEH and the closure of the Cambridge site in 2009, Tim has moved to Coventry University where he is a professor of mathematics. Research in biological statistics no longer forms part of his official role at the university but he continues to publish academic research papers based on Nature’s Calendar data. He also helps us review the project and its scientific findings twice a year, contributes to media communications about the project and is always on hand with advice.

Tim's input and expertise has almost certainly helped to raise our profile, and that of Nature's Calendar, in the media. He has provided substantial and invaluable support this year as we have established our new partnership with the British Science Association and renewed the partnership with BBC Springwatch.

Boosting the numbers

Professor Tim Sparks

Investigating the question 'how fast does spring move?' was always going to be a huge challenge but it captured the public imagination. It was featured on BBC Easterwatch and Springwatch and thanks to all the recorders, Nature's Calendar gathered a huge volume of data. Naturally, Tim was on hand to perform the calculations which would help us answer the question.

We have seen an enormous boost to the number of Nature’s Calendar recorders: incredibly 17,000 new people registered to record with Nature’s Calendar and submitted around 20,000 new records this year! We only had around 2,000 active recorders before Springwatch aired, so this provided an exceptional contribution to the future sustainability of the project. 

Tim contributed to this major team effort by appearing on the Sky Breakfast show in London on 12 June. He also helped us answer numerous last minute questions from the BBC in the run up to the Springwatch shows.

The speed of spring

Tim calculated the speed of spring in 2015 as being 1.9mph, rather faster than compared with a similar set of Victorian records at 1.2mph! This result creates a really interesting question around what impact this change will have on our wildlife.