Nature 2010 June

After a winter whitewash, whither the wildlife; a wilderness of flowers and a whirring of insects?

Several months on from the exceptional winter weather, the impact on the rural scene and the bashing the wildlife has taken are becoming clearer. The most visible signs in spring include delays in leaf-burst and blossom from trees, perhaps by two to three weeks. In these elevated Chiltern parts hawthorn, normally seen as a weathervane of the season and for many hundreds of years known as May, will be seen at its best this year in early June.

While the emergence of winter flowers such as – ironically – snowdrops were much later, some spring flowers, such as violets, were unaffected by the prolonged cold snap and appeared on cue. Bluebells are normally racing to appear in late April, just in advance of the overshadowing limegreen beechwood canopy. This year both were delayed by almost equal measure.

The Cuckoos’ arrival did not disappoint. Over-wintering in North Africa or the Mediterranean, they were blissfully ignorant of the harsh winter suffered by the birds they rely on to bring up their offspring. The first reported arrival in these parts was on 17 April. However, assuming the host birds (warblers, meadow pipits and dunnocks) have delayed nest making etc, the cuckoos will have had to wait for their foster parents to be in place.

Each year, on the last Sunday of January, the RSPB carry out their “Big Bird Watch” survey. The RSPB reports that results clearly show how devastating the effect of a prolonged period of harsh weather has on the bird population. Unsurprisingly, there is a disproportionately heavy impact on our smaller garden birds. In 2009 the long-tailed tit, which has been increasing in numbers in recent years, broke into the RSPB “top ten” list. This was explained by the feeding behaviour of these “bumbarrels” or “flying lollipops”, adapting to the increased availability of garden feeders. This year it was relegated to thirteenth and other miniature favourites, such as the wren, coal tit and our smallest native species, the goldcrest, fared even worse.

In Bucks, the population of the house sparrow, once our most numerous bird and already in decline, took a sharp nose-dive in 2010. Although still the highest scoring of the smaller birds, the sparrow is now third. The robin has also been knocked off its high perch, coming in at number 8. The top ten in the county therefore included several medium and larger-sized birds, such as blackbird (1), starling (2), and wood pigeon (6).

Meanwhile, it was interesting to note that a number of more characteristically rural birds cropped up on the lists for town gardens; reflecting the unfavourable conditions in the surrounding countryside. In particular, elevated to the suburban garden bird premier league were fieldfare, redwing, bullfinch and yellow hammer. Next January, if you would like to participate, or at least compare what birds visit your garden, look out for publicity on the BBC Nature and RSPB websites, or in the newspapers.

Anyone familiar with the task of keeping children amused on a long car journey will have turned, perhaps in desperation, to the pub sign cricket game where legs and arms score runs. A variation for anyone out on a country walk is to spot which plants and trees include animals in their names. Starting with domestic animals, there are plenty of dogs around. There is the poisonous woodland plant dog’s mercury, where “dog” in medieval English means “worthless or just plain bad”. It was believed by herbalists that the roots of the dog rose and tongue-shaped leaves of the herb hound’s tongue could cure someone bitten by a mad dog. Another common canine-related example is dogwood. Cats do not figure so frequently. The most likely in these parts is cat’s-ear, a dandelion lookalike with small cat-shaped leaves on the flower stalk.

More profuse than cows in these parts are cow parsley and cowslip, both plants sharing pastures with their animal namesakes. There are several horses: horse chestnut, the name deriving from the horseshoe-shaped scar left on the leaf stalk and horsetail, a primitive plant more ancient than its animal namesake. Porcine-related “monikers” that come to mind include pignut: the root was, in medieval times, a valued food which pigs were capable of detecting, much as they do with truffles. Meanwhile hogweed, (not of the giant kind) was collected as fodder for pigs.

Unsurprisingly there are several grasses with sheep in the name; however sheep’s-bit is so-called after the custom of sheep to bite off the flower heads. Goatsbeard needs no explanation. For ducks we have duckweed. For chickens we have both fat hen and several types of chickweed, the seeds of which are enjoyed by domestic fowl. Geese are fed cleavers, hence the alternative name goose grass. Whereas meadow foxtail has a clear derivation, foxglove is a misnomer; the origin being “folk’s musical instrument”. The fly, the rat and the hare are also represented and there are many more.

Out and about in June and July will be this season’s crop of whirring insects. A measure of how severe the winter has been will be the number of butterflies on the wing, comprising the second generation of over-wintered adults and those who migrate. Other prominent insects will be bees, able to recover lost ground quickly despite the death of over-wintering queens and the late emergence of spring flowers. Dragonfly nymphs should have been insulated from the cold after three years underwater and will crawl up a stem to transform into adults. To survive, the larger invertebrates use habitat dominance: strength, speed, camouflage and sensory perception. Smaller insects, vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, predation and food shortage rely on the capacity to reproduce in higher numbers. In the air, flies and midges predominate; in the soil and detritus it’s beetles while in ponds, water fleas proliferate. Without this annual explosion of the invertebrate biomass most of our mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and amphibians would not survive.