Nature 2005 April

Now Appearing In The Countryside Near You

The weather at the end of February and March sprung some surprises with a dozen or so consecutive days when snow fell. Rainfall for the first three months of 2005 was down on the average for the time of year and was only half of last year’s unusually wet quarter when 6.5 ins (169mm) of rain fell. Looking ahead the last throws of winter at the end of March will not unsurprisingly give way to more showery outbursts in the early part of April with temperatures slightly above the norm for this time of year. May looks like being warmer overall and drier than average, however the downside of this is that clearer skies will bring night-time temperatures below freezing, with sheltered areas in the Chilterns experiencing snap frosts during the first week of the month. The next two full moons are on the 24th April and 23rd May.

So what can you expect to see out and about for the next month or two?

The cold snap at the end of February has delayed bud burst for a week or two. As I write I am yet to spot a brimstone butterfly, usually one of the first to break cover and brave the elements in March. As often is the case the first sight of butterflies emerging from hibernation may have more to do with them being disturbed than of any meteorological significance. A far better indicator of climate change is the orange-tip (white wings with an orange tip!) which if not seen already should make an appearance in the next few weeks. It is an important ‘indicator species’ and is now appearing weeks earlier compared to 30 years ago. It has become more common in those parts of the Chilterns which have been seen improved conservation and more sympathetic land management. Meanwhile sightings in low-lying areas have fallen due to more extensive drainage and ‘tidying up’ of its traditional habitats. For this reason its all the more crucial that our gardens, paddocks and hedgerows which developed from the enclosure of fields as well as important habitats such as roadside verges, greens and commons retain sufficient unkempt areas. We should resist the suburban obsession to make open spaces neat and tidy and turn them into sterile parkland with reconstructed vistas of an imaginary and false countryside. Its ironic that at a time when agricultural policy is now, at long last, recognising the contribution farmers make through the sensible management and conservation of the rural landscape, it is fashionable to turn gardens into unnecessarily floodlit, so-called ‘living spaces’ from which everything natural is either discouraged or has been extinguished.

Cuckoo-pint no doubt one of those ‘nasty weeds’ not welcome in such gardens seems to appear fully grown in just a day or two regular as clockwork in April. The characteristic hooded leaf or spathe protects the cylindrical flowerhead or spadix. Look out for whether the flowerhead is either yellow or purple or if the green leaves are plain or spotted. All variations occur locally and the spotted version is said to have given rise to the alternative name of Lords and Ladies due to its ‘resemblance’ to the beauty spots that adorned the fops and courtesans of 300 years ago.

Although about all year, from late March onwards brown hares are more visible than usual. Mornings and evenings are the best time to see them although the excessive amounts of energy they possess during spring means they abandon reason as they play out their annual rituals of boxing and ‘haring’ about open grassland. Perhaps this year the exuberance of their celebrations will have all the more meaning given the extra protection they along with foxes and deer have in the law from this year!

Another sight often seen scurrying at full tilt across the road is the stoat which by late May is also more active than any other time. Both parents are preoccupied with hunting out prey, ranging over a territory of over 20 acres. Usually mice or young rabbits and on the estates around here, to the gamekeepers displeasure, pheasant eggs no doubt, to feed their offspring or ‘kits’. Closely related to the weasel but distinguished by their deeper reddish-brown colouring and with tail held out horizontally and tipped in black as though it had been used as a paint brush.

Glancing out of the window as I write this in mid March, with mounting fear of the imminent arrival of the always polite but direct email from the editor asking where this month’s contribution is, I have spotted a pair of long-tailed tits nest-making in the recently pruned hawthorn hedge. The nest started as a small cup of moss in the crotch of tangled and thorny branches. A quick swot with the reference books advises this is all glued together by confiscated spider’s web. The foundation built, they then begin to weave more moss with grass stalks and an outer crust of lichen. By the time this article hits the streets and assuming unwelcome magpies or our cheerful postman have not inadvertently interrupted their work we should have sight of a dome-shaped and fully enclosed nest lined with over two thousand feathers. For this reason their old rural name is ‘bottle-tit’. Apparently the nest being elastic can be home to a brood of 10 to 12 and surprisingly up to four adult birds, two of which having lost their own nest to predation join the family as house-guests and will help with rearing the chicks.

If you find yourself walking across the open ground listen out above for skylarks. One of my regular correspondents has already reported a flurry of skylark activity so maybe this will be a good year for them! Birds provide an excellent starting point for youngsters to enjoy nature. They are readily visible and can be easily identified from their sounds and plumage. Having heard from one dad and son who have started compiling a list of local bird sightings I would be happy to pass on a list of local birds based on our combined local knowledge to anyone else interested.

Choice of uninvited house visitor of the month must be the Cockchafer (May Bug) which noisily announces its arrival on warm evenings in May as it clumsily collides with windows and outside lights. Many of these are actually migrants from the Continent swelling the numbers significantly in some years. Although it hatches out in October the adult stays underground until the Spring. Eggs are laid some two feet underground and the large cream-coloured larva remains beneath the surface for up to three years feeding on the roots of roses and cereal crops and can be a serious pest. They are known also as rookworms providing a nutritious meal for such birds when unearthed during ploughing.

Elsewhere you will read about the threats to our native bluebell. Surprisingly though such illicit trade is not just a modern phenomenon. Bookbinders from Elizabethan times used a ‘gum’ made from the bulbs whilst long before the discovery of starch’s stiffening qualities bluebell glue was used by courtiers to revitalise their ruffs. In the seventieth century the famous herbalist John Gerard advised that “the root is bulbous full of slimie glewish juice, which will serve to set feathers on arrows.” So finally, I make no excuse for again this year recommending a morning or early evening visit to see this shimmering burst of woodland colour, made all the more spectacular by the lime green of the newly emerging beech leaves overhead.