Nature 2008 April

Gowk, Har and Whin

A very wet start to the year saw nigh on 4 inches of rainfall in January. As I write this, the wind is getting up for a second night this week. Will I finish before the power goes off again? Looking ahead we should not bank on repeat of last Spring’s record temperatures, the warmest since 1914. April will be noticeably cooler than normal although later on in May it will probably make up for a slow start to the growing season. Rainfall will be much as you would expect for the time of year but as the water table remains high there will be a continued chance of surface flooding if we experience a heavy downfall.

It is not immediately obvious but over the first part of this year many thousands of our commonly seen garden birds are on the move, ‘migrating’ back from their seasonal quarters. Each autumn many of the birds in our gardens make themselves scarce. By spreading out along the hedgerows and woodland edges they can feast themselves on energy-rich seeds, nuts or berries whilst taking refuge from the worst of the weather. In recent years this habit has been slowly changing. With the milder winter season and our growing tendency to supplement their diet by putting out food, some varieties of garden birds are staying put. Birds have different ways of feeding in the winter or when food is scarce. Typically goldfinches, specialist nut feeders, linger on the perch and can be seen defending their ‘horde’ (e.g. sunflower and niger seeds) meanwhile, nuthatches and coal tits neither of whom hang around are smash and grab merchants. Then there are the marauding troupes of long-tailed tits that noisily breeze in at 10 to the dozen an as quickly spiral off as though connected by invisible elastic. All these birds have been on the increase in our gardens, in recent years, according to the census numbers reported by the BTO and RSPB. Another conspicuous visitor this winter which has, this year, been reported in these parts has been the brambling. It often congregates with other ground-feeding relatives such as chaffinches, whose numbers like sparrows, have been falling in recent years. So one action that can be taken is to provide a supply of seed in a trough or the like at ground level this will help the ground feeders including enticing some of the larger birds such as pheasants.

It’s the time of year for the Har. Har is another name for the hare and is Old English for grey or old. Old perhaps because the hare looks like it’s a stooping rabbit. Brown hares were brought to Britain with the Romans, possibly for the sport of coursing. (Before this only Mountain hares could be found in moorland Britain). Their sudden arrival in this country and prominence around the festival of Eostre probably accounts for their adoption as mystical creatures in Pagan culture. They were originally animals of the steppes in Asia, which moved into the continental grassland prairies. The clearance of forest and development of arable farming enabled them to spread fast in lowland areas but they cannot survive in the highlands where their cousin still holds sway. The next two months is the best time of year to see hares; they are active over their prolonged breeding season from February to September and despite being night-time feeders they are most visible around now with crops only newly emergent. The “boxing”, for which they are noted is not a territorial battle by males but is instigated by the females repelling over-amorous suitors. Females can raise up to four litters per year, each of two to four young (leverets). Unlike rabbits they do not use burrows but rear their young in scrapes or forms, where they and are particularly vulnerable so they stay motionless all day and only being fed at dusk to avoid detection by predators. Hare populations vary considerably from place to place and season to season, leverets, in particular, being heavily predated by foxes and stoats. They rely on their marbled camouflage to avoid detection and their speed to escape. Although around here their numbers maybe modest, two places I have see them in recent times are the fields at Bellingdon End and those between Hawridge Common and Heath End. Elsewhere, when numbers overrun and due to the damaging impact they can have on cereal crops and young tree saplings they have to be managed as a minor pest.

It’s also the time of year when one listens out for the Gowk. The work Gowk is a Scottish or north English word for one who is an awkward or a foolish person who does not take their responsibilities seriously. In this case we are referring to the cuckoo, well named on account of it leaving parental responsibilities to others. Last year the first call was on 17th April. It is said to be lucky if you hear your first cuckoo when out walking and no such luck if still in bed! Let me know if you hear one around this date this year and what you were up to at the time!.

The hedgerows and commons really come into their own this month. Yellow flowers predominate attracting in particular some of the first bees of the year. Although already making a showing if March is warm, Lesser celandines appear where the ground is wetter. Cowslips like well-drained undisturbed pastures where chalk is not far from the surface. Look out for Common gorse, which is one Old English name that has stuck, as it has also has regional names of furze and whin (as in whinchat a bird which sings from the top of furze bushes). These days its erstwhile usefulness is largely forgotten. Its presence on the Commons are not an accident, as it would have been carefully managed and cherished, as the young shoots are a valuable source of animal fodder, whilst the woody parts make excellent fencing to keep animals in or out or for fires. So any Commoners found abusing their right to collect furze were liable to a heavy fine.

Once again with the bluebells due out in the last week in April there is only one choice for the kind of walk this time of year but plenty different woods to choose from. But beware the first speckled wood butterflies have emerged and are all males. They set up territories along the woodland walks and are prepared to defend their domains ruthlessly!