Published: 06:00, 26 January 2020
Kent is set for its warmest winter since records began and as global warming accelerates wildlife is being thrown into confusion, experts warn.
Milder climates have prompted birds to fly the wrong direction as dying hedgehogs "charge around" the countryside, it has been claimed.
The alarm bells rung out as fresh figures reveal the winter mercury is hovering around an average of 6.5C, up 1.75C from 1981-2011.
The Met Office says global warming is fuelling the soaring temperatures as nature experts condemn the wetter and milder months.
Climate change has led to a rapid rise in global surface air temperatures since the 1950s, with 2016 the hottest year on record.
In Kent, lake levels continue to soar, butterflies are appearing in winter, and warm-climate birds thrive throughout the county.
All of this comes as councils warn the county will suffer some of the harshest impacts of climate change throughout the UK, while the sea level in Sheerness continues to surge.
Meanwhile, balmier temperatures are prompting confusion in birds' migration patterns, according to nature expert Owen Leyshon, from Romney Marsh Countryside Partnership.
Hedgehogs are also at risk of dying out without human intervention, claimed zoology professor Ray Allibones, of Swampys Wildlife Rescue on the Isle of Sheppey.
Butterflies in winter are becoming more common than the Smew, a relatively rare migratory bird seen in Dungeness, according to Grahame Madge, a Met Office spokesman.
One of three birds named after Kent places, the Dartford Warbler, is steadily returning to the UK, as living conditions in Spain and north Africa worsen, he added.
Water levels on Dungeness are rising by at least one litre a year, drawing emergency action from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
Mr Leyshon, who works to help preserve the Dungeness nature reserve, said: "Some of the early breeding birds think spring is on its way, they start breeding, then an inevitable cold spell will come in February and the young will fail.
"Hedgehogs and amphibians can also find themselves in trouble - you don’t want hibernating animals charging around thinking it is spring.
"Hedgehogs will come out of hibernation believing it is spring, sniff around and eat a few slugs, then a sudden burst of cold will kill them.
"Migration is a little bit different. Not far away there is a swallow still swooping and a House Martin which should be in Africa staying in this country.
"We’re seeing more and more of these milder winters, making it more unlikely for many animals to survive."
Prof Allibone mirrored Mr Leyshon's concerns, adding: "We've been inundated with hedgehogs that need help - the amount we help has gradually increased over the last 10 years.
"Luckily I've got a team of volunteers who help, otherwise I wouldn't be able to manage on my own."
With its diet of insects, slugs and invertebrates scarce in the winter month, the mammal builds enough fat throughout the year to hibernate.
Yet warmer winter weather tricks the animal into understanding spring has arrived, and so it wakes up, loses fat deposits, before inevitable cold temperatures kill it off.
"With the weather conditions there isn't a lot you can do, we're in a warmer climate now and hedgehogs are having to depend on humans," he added.
"I don't think the future looks good for the species. If you have hedgehogs visiting your garden then please, please leave food out for them."
Gareth Brookfield, senior site manager for the RSPB Dungeness, explained: "We are definitely seeing changes because of climate change.
"All of the studies point to that as being the cause.
Green campaigner talks to KMTV about climate change
"We are getting a lot more wet winters and water levels are changing - year on year we see the lake levels rise by about one litre.
"Recently we lost a colony of Common Terns on an island in the middle of the lake when the water level rose above it."
But the charity built artificial islands on its 30 hectare lake, different heights, so the colony can flourish regardless of rainfall.
Asked if 2020 is the warmest winter Kent has seen, Mr Madge said: "Of course, February and later January could drag the temperature down, but so far it does appear to be one of the warmest winters on record for Kent so far.
"It has got to the point now where you’re more likely to see a butterfly rather than a Smew during January in Dungeness now.
"And our records show the temperature hasn’t dropped below 7C this winter in Lydd."
Previously, the arrival of the first V-shaped flights of Bewick swans to the east of England after a 2,000-mile journey from Siberia, marked the arrival of winter.
Yet a steady decline in numbers of the distinctive yellow-and-black- billed bird delivers a further climate change warning, Mr Madge added.
However, as numbers of wintering ducks, geese, swans, and wading birds falls, other species are benefitting from the milder weather.
When the UK's breeding population of Dartford Warblers crashed in the 1960s, only 10 pairs remained.
Today, there are about 3,200 pairs of the bird - one of just three given Kent names - nesting on lowland heaths.
Campaigners earlier told KMTV Kent could be underwater by 2050
"As conditions in Spain and North Africa become too tough for the Dartford Warbler, we have seen it return to the UK where the air is now milder," Mr Madge said.
Indeed, temperatures soared past 20C for the first time in February last winter.
Climate largely depends on the direction air comes from.
High pressure swirling south east of the British Isles can drag warmer air from Africa and the Canary Islands.
Temperatures can also soar due to the Foehn effect, where air warms as it blows over mountains.
"If we are to have any chance of preserving the living planet and avoiding the extinction of a million species, then we need to do more than stop climate breakdown"
But many experts believe global warming plays a significant factor in extreme weather conditions.
Recent findings from the UK Climate Projections report, under a medium emissions scenario, suggests wholesale change by 2050.
Winters are likely to be warmer by around 2.2C and summer hotter by 2.8C.
Winter rainfall is likely to increase by 16% and decrease by 19% in the summer, according to the latest report.
Doctor Charlie Gardner, a conservation scientist from the University of Kent, said: "If we are to have any chance of preserving the living planet and avoiding the extinction of a million species, then we need to do more than stop climate breakdown.
"We need to invest in conservation too, to help wild plants and animals adapt to the changes we’ve already locked in.
"Not doing so would be bad news for all of us."