Last year was an unusual one for us all, as we got used to a new reality, but for me it was also a year of colour, amazing wildlife, and fabulous adventures. I learnt alot and was able to continue to grow as a person, which includes my skill in wildlife photography and passion for communicating nature with you all. To celebrate, here’s a collection of my nature photos spanning 2021, capturing a range of themes, species and stories, and holding a feel good factor. Enjoy!
Series in collaboration with guest writer Emma Rogan
Autumn is a time of plenty, painted with fantastic colours, such as leaves changing, berries and nuts adorning unveiling branches, and the emergence of marvellous mushrooms. Wherever you go during this time, autumn may be moving at a different pace, but the vein of change runs throughout. In Dorset, autumn begins with the first blackberries in August, the start of the migration of birds to warmer climes, and the beginning of a bite in the early morning. In Manchester these signs can also be found, but the change in season is more easily spotted by the increasing carpet of amber leaves on the pavement. For nature, this time of bounty and activity foreshadows the days of dormancy to come.
Last time in Rural vs. Urban, Dorset-born naturalist Laura was joined by Manchester-born wildlife enthusiast and friend Emma, to explore the magical minibeasts that could be found in their local patches. From grasshoppers to froghoppers, both Laura and Emma were amazed by the variety of species they found in such a short space of time! No experts on minibeasts, just enthusiastic adults, their eyes were opened to this miniature world by slowing down and focussing on the smaller things. In this way, we can gain a lot, from escapism to inspiration.
In this next instalment of Rural vs. Urban, we move into autumn with Laura and Emma exploring their home areas to see in the change of the seasons. As colours change and leaves fall, what will location and season mean for the plant and fungi life observed? What treasures will be discovered as we go back to the golden days of autumn?
Laura’s Plants and Fungi in the Countryside
This year autumn could be felt in cold mornings and stormy weather, but did not start showing its true face until October. I first took in the change of the season with a walk to my local woods on the 6th October, seeing the ruby red gleam of Hawthorn berries and a spectacular sunset of chilly blues and pinks. I was finally inspired explore all that autumn had to offer.
So, on the next day, I ventured out into my family’s land to take in all that nature had to offer, as autumn made its slow decline towards putting the landscape to sleep. Leaves were yet to start falling on this day, other than being ripped from their branches in strong winds, but were beginning to show a change in colour. Purples, reds, yellows, oranges, browns, and also the spectacular pink of Spindle leaves. By far the most common trees to be found in my local area though, are Pedunculate Oak, Field Maple, Hazel, Blackthorn, Elder, and Hawthorn; Oaks being a personal favourite.
The warm weather this autumn has meant that it has felt even slower in its start. So it was not surprising on my walk to find a variety of flowers still out, ranging from Herb Robert and Wild Marjoram to Meadow Cranesbill and Rough Hawkbit. With their presence at least, they will have provided an extended food source for wildlife that were yet to hide for the winter, for example Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies that were still on the wing. They also added colour to the magnificent display of nature’s bounty this autumn, which included the rich reds of Rose hips and the deep blues of sloes.
The warm and damp weather also provided the perfect conditions for fruiting fungi, an area where my knowledge is yet to fledge. Two species I did learn on my exploration though, were the pale, peeling Shaggy Inkcap and the unusual hulking forms of Bracket fungus, possibly Southern. Looking for fungi showed me that every day is a learning day and that our knowledge is ever expanding!
To round off my autumn adventure, I picked some apples from our apple trees to make a family favourite, an apple cake. The cake was simple to make, but went down a treat!
Emma’s Urban Plants and Fungi Adventure
For me, no time of the year evokes a feeling of new beginnings more than September. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when September meant the start of a new school year, but the changing of the season always lifts my spirits. Autumn is the season of hot chocolate, curling up with a book, re-watching Gilmore Girls for the fourth (okay, sixth…) time, and wrapping up warm to head out for a walk in the crisp autumn sun! Which, on September 26th, is exactly what me and my partner did.
Our first stop, as usual, was the beloved Parsonage Gardens in Didsbury. This beautiful walled garden provides a home for an amazing variety of trees, looked after by a dedicated team of volunteers. My favourite is the old mulberry tree at the entrance to the gardens, but we also found a corkscrew hazel, a yew tree with bright red berries, some bamboo, a sargent’s rowan tree, a Chinese dogwood, and some ferns! I love ferns because of how ancient they are. With a fossil record dating back to the middle Devonian (383-393 million years ago) they are one of the oldest groups of plants on Earth. A piece of ancient history on our doorstep!
As we walked down the hill to Fletcher Moss Gardens, we passed the Church of St James on Stenner Lane. St James is the second oldest church in Manchester, dating back to 1275. I paused for a moment to admire the ivy spilling over the walls surrounding the church garden, before continuing on. The species we encountered as we wandered through Fletcher Moss ranged from the small (forget-me-nots) to the large (silver birch). We also found another rowan tree, the bane of witches! Rowan has an illustrious history in British folklore as red was considered the best colour for fighting evil, so it was planted by houses so that it’s red berries could protect the occupants from witches.
Our walk took us further into Stenner Woods, where we were on the lookout for fungi. This is not my area of expertise, but I’ve done my best to identify what we found! Growing on the side of a fallen log was a small mushroom which I think is a type of inkcap, and on top of another log was a large, flat mushroom with a white underside which I think is a giant polypore. Like Laura I spotted some bracket fungus, although the fungus looked to be past it’s best so I was not sure of the species! While searching through the woodland for fungi, I also came across an abandoned spider’s web adorned with raindrops which looked like crystals.
We ended our plant and fungi hunt by walking through the iconic poplar grove which leads from the river back to Stenner Lane. I had a lovely time on my autumn adventure, but I think I need to brush up on my fungus identification skills!
Autumnal Plants and Fungi
Autumn is usually defined as the season between summer and winter when leaves change colour and fall, the weather becomes cooler, and a time of full maturity is reached, such as crops becoming ripe. Autumn is so much more than this though, with it often being a favourite time of year for many, encapsulated in a feeling of cosiness, plentifulness and change. For Laura at this time of year, the sunsets are spectacular, the nights full of starry skies, and surroundings full of natural food on offer. For Emma, frost sparkles on bright leaves, the morning air becomes crisp, and the smell of hot chocolate is a welcome aroma.
This season is also a time for plants and fungi to reach the ends of their annual cycle and go out with a bang. As Laura and Emma found, autumn is a vibrant season before winter’s slumber descends on the landscape. It was interesting to see some variation between the two locations though, such as in Manchester more exotic species thrive and autumn marches forward earlier than in Dorset. This would be due to the naturally milder climate found in an urban setting, but temperatures tending to be colder in the North-West than the balmier South-West.
Still there were treasures to be found in both locations, with plants and fungi taking centre stage. Colourful, bountiful and spectacular, such species capture the imagination and provide a lifeline in nature. Engulfed in the cold and storminess of winter, we can now look back on the golden glow of autumn days with a smile, before we begin to look forward to the return of new life once again.
After I click open the file on my camera trap, I press next through a male pheasant strutting his stuff and a female roe deer passing through, until a photo makes me stop. There towards the back of the shot are two small brown shapes. I move through the rest of the photos as day passes into night, and watch as these two rough and tumble through the photos, exploring, playing and watching their wild neighbours go past, ending with one sitting stock still in front of the camera. My camera trap had successfully found my first litter of fox cubs of the year!
The last few years I have become known for my exploration of my family’s farm in Dorset using a camera trap. My camera trap allows me to delve into the lives of my wild neighbours without intrusion or disturbance of their natural behaviour, and to use my photos to inspire others to open their eyes and be motivated to conserve our local wildlife. It is always a rollercoaster of emotions, never knowing what my camera trap might find, but in the end it is a very rewarding experience. If you are interested in getting your own camera trap or knowing how to make the most of your own, check out my ‘How to… Use and Make the Most of a Camera Trap’ guide for some more information.
My camera trap has been a very useful tool for me over the last few years, so since 2019 I have spent my spring seasons moving my camera trap around different sites across 250 acres of farmland, taking in different species and behaviour. In 2019, I saw 12 species of birds and mammals, including families of badgers and a family of three fox cubs. In 2020, my camera trapping got even more interesting, with badger cubs, a couple of litters of fox cubs, and lots of roe deer sightings. The most enjoyable shots are always the most unexpected though, despite from time to time getting a photo bomber or two, for example in the form of our farm cat!
This spring I have been out and about once again on the farm with my camera trap. This year I selected six different sites across our land, with the hope of capturing some of the normal sights, along with some new ones. As the spring has now come to an end, activity has dropped across these sites, and thus it is time to see how spring has been captured by my camera trap this year.
Camera Trapping Spring 2021
Quarry Field Badger Sett
My first camera trapping site this year was an active badger sett to the east of my family’s land. It sits between a silage field and a maize field in a wide and thick hedgerow, and is a great crossroads for animals passing through. I have used this site in previous years for camera trapping, with varying success, such as last year’s highlights of badger cubs and a lively, lone fox cub.
This year I set my camera trap up at the sett for a week (3rd-10th April), moving the position and angle every other day to increase my chances of capturing wildlife. It paid off as I had a successful first week, with rabbits, roe deer, badgers, and a fox.
Due to seeing a lone fox cub at this site last year, the presence of an adult fox at the sett once again led me to return with my camera trap seven weeks later for another week (27th May-1st June). My hunch paid off as my camera trap returned photos of two fox cubs playing, living alongside a badger family, and being fed by a parent.
Gill Hill Copse
For my next site, I set my camera trap up within a copse surrounded by a cow grazing field west of the Quarry Field badger sett. During early spring this is a great site to capture wildlife moving through the landscape as the copse is a great stopping place. I have used this site before, and last year I saw species, such as roe deer and foxes.
This year I used my camera in the copse for just one week (11th-18th April), but moved its position within the copse every couple of days. I captured photos of a territorial male pheasant, an adult badger, a grey squirrel, an adult fox, and a rather comical sequence of photos of two female roe deer being spied on by a hiding male. As vegetation in the copse grows up and spring progresses, camera trapping success decreases at this site, but it was nice to see some life early on this spring.
Dorset County Council Wood
For my third site, I set my camera trap within a small, young wood that can be found at the centre of my family’s land, bordered by a road and a meadow. I have used this wood before, with some positive sightings in 2019 of foxes and badgers passing through.
This year I tried the wood again for a couple of days (19th-24th April), with some overall disappointing results. A male pheasant and magpie were seen, with an adult fox being seen twice, but overall the wood was quiet, reflecting a lack of diversity evident in this unmanaged woodland. I did not return to the wood again during this spring as a result.
Badger Field Sett
For my fourth camera trapping site, I returned to an active badger sett towards the centre of my family’s land. The sett is bordered by grazing land on both sides, and is set within a wide, thick hedge, extending out into the field on its east side. Last year I used my camera trap to look within the sett and to the sett entrances on either side, and saw adult badgers, badger cubs, and an adult fox. This was unsurprising as the sett is a thriving mixed site for badgers, foxes and rabbits alike.
This year I positioned my camera trap first on the western side of the sett (25th-27th April), before positioning it directly within the area above the sett (4th-7th May). Pointing my camera trap at the animal track running along the side of the sett, I captured an adult badger, adult fox, and my first hare! Above the sett, my camera trap was more active, capturing lots of badger activity, woodpigeons, blackbirds, and red-legged partridges, and a surprising sighting of a field vole climbing vegetation. It was a lovely sequence of photos!
For my fifth site, I chose to return to one of my favourite locations, the familiarly known Badger Alley. Badger Alley is an enclosed footpath that has dug out animal holes along half of its length, split into two old badger setts. In 2019 this was a super site for seeing badgers wondering its length, but last year it was obvious that wildlife numbers had declined, badgers in particular.
This year I spent two stints setting up my camera trap along Badger Alley. Firstly, I spent five days with my camera trap trained on the non-active lower sett, changing the camera’s position after two days (10th-14th May). Amongst photos of a female roe deer and a displaying male pheasant, I got lots of really lovely photos of two fox cubs playing and exploring their world.
I then returned to Badger Alley in June, moving my camera from the non-active lower sett (5th-11th June) to the sett further up (11th-14th June). By now my camera trap found that the family of foxes had moved on, with only the female and new male roe deer appearing at the lower sett. What was really sad, was finding that Badger Alley has now been fully abandoned by badgers, with the higher sett now being home to just rabbits. A slightly disappointing end to my camera trap’s time at Badger Alley!
To finish camera trapping during the spring season, I took a bet on a site where there was a possibility of finding another litter of fox cubs. This site was a hedge in the middle of cow grazing land, where I had not previously camera trapped before. I chose to set my camera trap up on a fence post pointing along the hedgeline where I had found holes into the hedge, and left my camera for a couple of days (14th-16th June).
On retrieving my camera trap, I was excited to find that my instincts had been right and my camera trap had shot photos of two fox cubs and an adult. It was a lovely end to my spring camera trapping season!
June has been one of those months that has passed by in the blink of an eye. Rainy days quickly moved into scorching heat and then back to rain, framing the last of spring’s events. Every day I have tried to be outside as much as possible, with my happy place being out in nature. From work to down time, my life and hobbies revolve around the wild and the natural world around me. This is why I love to share my experiences with others, to excite, inspire, and instill, and to help motivate people to protect and conserve what is left of our natural world.
It is not surprising then that I am always up for a wild challenge. Last year this took the form of the Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild, an annual nature challenge that has now run for 6 years, with more than a million people taking part last year. This challenge aims to bring people closer to nature whilst making a positive difference for wildlife and its conservation. All you have to do is complete one ‘Random Act of Wildness’ each day for the whole of June. It is that simple!
Last year I really enjoyed participating in 30 Days Wild, with the challenge enriching my days, helping me to relax, and allowing me to develop a deeper connection with the natural world around me. It also gave me an added focus on days that were busy and stressful, keeping me centred and moving forward. My Random Acts of Wildness ranged from making bird food and picking fruit, to dissecting barn owl pellets and learning my chalkland wildflower species. So it was an easy decision this year to take part once again.
Here’s what I got up to during 30 Days Wild 2021:
Day 1: Tuesday 1st (Work)
For the start of my 30 Days Wild, I began strong.
After failing to find an active kestrel nest last year, I finally found the natural nest I had been hoping for! I also checked and moved my camera trap after a week out at a badger sett, discovering my second family of foxes of this year, with it being by far my best camera trapping season yet!
Day 2: Wednesday 2nd (Day Off)
I love an adventure, and so today I ventured out into my local area in the rain to take in as many different habitats and species as possible, with the highlight being 4 red kites sitting in a tree on my family’s land. After drying off and allowing the rain to pass, that afternoon I headed back outside, this time to test my brand new macro lens and get stuck in to the world of the small.
Day 3: Thursday 3rd (Day Off)
For my second day off, I made the most of free time and went for a long ride with a friend, the highlight being riding through chalk grasslands, embellished with colourful flowers and melodious birds. Being on horseback in this way allows me to take in a range of wildlife in a short period of time and also give me great up-close views.
Day 4: Friday 4th (Work)
For spring, my wildlife blog has been back up and running, and every Friday has been a Wild Friday. For this week, my new post was all about the spring bluebells, which are one of my favourite parts of spring each year. Check it out on my blog now!
Day 5: Saturday 5th (Work)
After a long day at work, I still had energy to work on some of my nature projects. This included putting my dad together a list of all the bird species seen on my family’s land in the last year (65!), and learning how to fill in nest records for the BTO’s Nest Record Scheme, beginning with a blackbird’s, kestrel’s, and barn owl’s nest.
Day 6: Sunday 6th (Work)
A week ago I cleared a small wildlife area of docks and sowed some homemade wildlife mixes, so this evening after work I headed over to the area to do some management and to water the seeds. I then headed home to finish off my day with Thursday’s and Friday’s missed episodes of Springwatch.
Day 7: Monday 7th (Work)
After catching my neice’s cold, today I felt particularly under the weather. It was a perfect way then to spend my evening curled up in an armchair reading some lovely nature blogs to cheer myself up before an early night.
Day 8: Tuesday 8th (Work)
My happy place is out in nature, and so I have been enjoying working at the moment on my family’s farm in Dorset, and keeping an open mind to what I might discover during day-to-day life. Today I had everything from peacock butterflies and Lackey moth caterpillars, to yellowhammers singing and brown hares grazing within 10 metres of me!
Day 9: Wednesday 9th (Day Off)
I began my first of two days by heading to my bird ringing trainer’s private nature reserve to help with summer maintenance work, before returning home to check the kestrel nest and to head round to my next door neighbour’s to look for active swallow nests (4 so far!).
Day 10: Thursday 10th (Day Off)
For my second day off, I had a lovely relaxing hack with Marsha exploring a new route near my home, and spent time watching and counting the birds visiting the feeders in my garden. From pheasants and house sparrows to goldfinches and greenfinches, all species and their abundance are recorded in my garden and sent off at the end of the week to the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch scheme.
Day 11: Friday 11th (Work)
Today after work I spent time expanding my wildlife knowledge through reading the BTO’s Lifecycle magazine and BBC Wildlife magazine, and watching the very last episode of 2021’s Springwatch.
Day 12: Saturday 12th (Work)
Today I used my lunch break to take photos of the bees buzzing around the poached egg flowers in my family’s garden using my brand new macro lens (very exciting!). My evening was then spent relaxing with my family in my brother and sister-in-law’s garden for a lovely family bbq in the setting sun.
Day 13: Sunday 13th (Work)
Last year I completed a self-set challenge to find an example of wildlife for every letter of the alphabet during just 1 day. Today I decided to have a go once again, but with the added challenge of finding different examples compared to last year. It was tough, but I did it!
Day 14: Monday 14th (Work)
After a long day at work, I spent some time exploring Twitter’s wildlife community, visiting some of my favourite and some new pages. Why not check them out yourself to find out what they have been getting up to?
Day 15: Tuesday 15th (Work)
After work, I had a really lovely evening checking my family’s barn owl nest box and kestrel tree nest with fully licensed members of my ringing group. We were excited to find the adult female barn owl brooding 4 young and the adult female kestrel feeding 3 two week old chicks!
Day 16: Wednesday 16th (Day Off)
To finish off a jam packed day off, I went for a lovely evening walk that began with just me and my camera and ended with me also carrying my camera trap and family’s farm cat. He likes to have a walk, but he gets tired too easily!
Day 17: Thursday 17th (Day Off)
Around my usual horse riding today, I kept myself busy with my wildlife photography, using my camera, taking photos off of memory cards, organising photos, and sorting my camera trap.
Day 18: Friday 18th (Work)
Today was another ‘Wild Friday‘ on my blog meaning a brand new blog post went up all about how spring 2021 unfurled. A little scientific, a little anecdotal, and a little visual-based, it was an enjoyable piece to write.
Day 19: Saturday 19th (Work)
Today I have been very busy looking after my parents’ farm whilst they are away. It has been a great opportunity to take in all that the farm has to offer and to appreciate all the work my parents have done and are doing for wildlife on the farm, from digging ponds to planting trees.
For more information check out my 2020 blog post called ‘Giving Nature a Home on the Farm’.
Day 20: Sunday 20th (Work)
After a busy few days looking after the farm, this afternoon I took some time to relax with my family, and be a proud aunt seeing how my very intelligent neice is learning more and more about wildlife. To top off my day, I took part in the Wildlife Trusts Big Wild Quiz, getting a respectable 28 out of 35.
Day 21: Monday 21st (Work)
Nature has a strong influence on british culture, influencing everything from music to art and literature. Nature is also a great inspiration for my own creativity, for example encouraging me to improve my own ability to draw and sketch, and to use my drawings to illustrate my wild ‘How to’ guides.
Day 22: Tuesday 22nd (Work)
After a busy day at work, I decided that for today’s Random Act of Wildness I would make a valuable donation to Dorset Wildlife Trust. Any donation that can be made is important for such organisations to be able to do their conservation work, such as rewilding and habitat management.
Day 23: Wednesday 23rd (Day Off)
Around a lovely much needed catch up with and old friend, I spent my day off countryside walking, checking swallow nests, and baking. I followed suit of last year’s baking, and kept it simple with yummy sponge cakes with wild decorations, in the form of flowers, butterflies and leaves. A lot of fun!
Day 24: Thursday 24th (Day Off)
Today I spent my day checking barn owl nest boxes with Dorset County Council and Alan who I ring with at Conservation Action. Such experiences always feel like a privilege to me and it was a great training experience, topped off with ringing 3 out of 4 of my swallow nests.
Day 25: Friday 25th (Work)
Today was Wild Friday on my blog, with this week’s post being all about my how spring looked for me personally, featuring 16 of my favourite photos from the season. They are either aesthetically pleasing, a great memory, or just bring me joy. Check it out now!
Day 26: Saturday 26th (Work)
Today on a much needed afternoon off, activities included exploring a road verge in my local area to ID plants with my mum (24 wildflower species), and picking elderflower heads to make this year’s elderflower cordial.
Day 27: Sunday 27th (Work)
For the last 2 years I have been enjoying training as a bird ringer, and have become a member of my trainer’s conservation group called Conservation Action. We are based in Dorset and the South West and aim to protect, restore and preserve biodiversity, promote conservation, and to research and monitor the state of nature.
For more information, check out our website at www.conservationactionuk.org or our Twitter and Instagram pages.
Day 28: Monday 28th (Work)
Though my happy place is being outside in all weathers, today was one of those days when I got a bit too wet and then a bit too sweaty. The day was still very productive, so I felt content at the end of the day to head home and curl up with my current wild book: Gavin Thurston’s ‘Journeys into the Wild: Secret Life of a Cameraman’.
Day 29: Tuesday 29th (Work)
Today I accidentally found a bird’s nest at waist height in a hedge on my family’s farm, spent a lovely half hour out in my garden, the flowers thick with bumblebees, and ringed my final of first brood swallow nest.
Day 30: Wednesday 30th (Day Off)
Today I had a glorious last day of 30 Days Wild. I had a lovely early morning walk with my mum, took photos of the many butterflies on the farm at the moment, and finished the day checking barn owl boxes with my bird ringing training as the sun set
A lovely, active and wild month spent in some of the best ways possible!
Last year spring was my lifeline, as we experienced the world around us being thrown into disarray. This year spring was instead turned on its head, with changing weather patterns making it unpredictable and different from what we would usually expect at this time of year. A hot and stormy March, cold April, and wet May made nature emerge later, with spring events taking longer to arrive, and being anywhere up to 60 days late.
Still this year’s spring has been magnificent. Vibrant and colourful, it had much to be celebrated. My family’s farm in Dorset became full of new life, from blossoming trees and flowers, to fox cubs and leverets. Spring is unsurprisingly my favourite time of year, so this year I again made a point of getting out as much as possible to experience it, with my camera by my side. Here’s a look at some of my favourite photos from this spring, either for their aesthetic appeal, meaning to me, or overall joy factor.
Spring in Photos 2021
1. Blackthorn – This photo was taken at the beginning of April on a misty morning. It was a beautiful way to see delicate white blackthorn flowers in a different light, framed in front of a splintered stem.
2. Male blackbird – Blackbirds are an iconic sound of spring for me and also so many others. Their beautiful song often symbolises the beginnings of longer, lighter evenings, or for me fresh spring mornings. This male would sit in this willow tree every morning throughout spring to sing his song, defending his territory and mate. In particular, this male and his female nested in our shed, successfully fledging 5 chicks at the start of June.
3. Oak trees of a farming landscape – What hits me first in this photo is how bare this landscape seems for late April. The oak trees have barely begun their bud burst, looking skeletal behind a farm field that is being worked. This almost autumnal scene is refreshing though, showing the new beginnings of another year in nature.
4. Camera trap fox cub – This photo is one of my favourites from this spring, symbolising a successful spring camera trapping season (blog post to come). This was one location, an abandoned badger sett, where I thought that foxes may have been breeding. My camera trap proved my feeling to be right, and treated me to an assortment of photos, day and night, of 2 very active fox cubs. Just one of multiple litters that I found on my family’s farm this year!
5. Wood anemones – Wood anemones have slowly become one of my favourite spring flowers, being one of the first to appear in woodlands across the UK. They are a great indicator of ancient woodland, and an interesting flower to photograph for their shape and colour. My memory cards are full of all sorts of different types of photos of this species!
6. Tawny owl chicks – One of my highlights of spring this year has been ringing chicks under license with my bird ringing group (Conservation Action). In particular, I had a great day in early May at the Woodland Trust’s Duncliffe Woods site in North Dorset checking tawny owl nest boxes. It has been a poor year for tawny owls in general, which was reflected by Duncliffe Woods, but we did get lucky and found 3 active nest boxes. I had the pleasure of ringing these chicks, under permit, which will provide important information to help conserve tawny owls in the future.
7. Brown hare – This year has been the year of the hare on my family’s farm in Dorset. We have a reputation for being a great site for this species, but this year has been truly astounding. With 1-3 hares to every field, I was humbled to spend my spring out working alongside them everyday, getting to see them up close and experience their behaviour firsthand. Truly magical!
8. Pussy willow flowers – Willow flowers have been a difficult subject for me to photograph this year, with poor results. I was pleased though to find this refreshing photo on my memory card, of willow flowers stood out against a clear blue evening sky. They are beautiful in their own right.
9. Spider in macro – This photo that is not photographically ‘perfect’ is still a favourite of mine from this spring for other reasons. As I invest in my camera equipment, my latest edition has been my first professional macro lens. So this photo was the first photo I even took with my new lens, and it fills me with joy to see the new world I can now start to explore.
10. Grey wagtail – Last year my Dad began digging a pond in his field that he is currently wilding. Though he was rained off in the autumn before completion, the half-dug pond is already attracting a wealth of species from birds to insects. Majestic grey wagtails that have begun populating this area over the winter have also found the pond this spring.
11. Sunset – Though sunrises are magical, sunsets have always been my most favourite time of the day. This is because many of my happiest memories can be linked to beautiful and vibrant sunsets from field research in Canada to evenings at home on my family’s farm. I have seen so many incredible sunsets already so far, but I hope to see many more in the future.
12. Wild garlic – Though my busy spring dissuaded me from mornings waking up before the sunrise, I did spend a couple of glorious mornings waking up and getting out an hour or so after instead. The light is glorious at this time of day and always provides me with inspiration for my photos and life in general. This photo represents this magical time of day and the joys of spring flowers, wild garlic being an iconic example.
13. Feather in the bluebells – Wait, a feather again? Well feathers always sneak into my many files of photos, being a symbol of mine and representing my love of feathered species. They can also tell us useful information about what is living in a habitat, for example this feather is most likely from a collared dove.
14. Aberdeen angus calf – This photo is one of my favourite photos of one of my mum’s beef suckler calves. Spring is a time of new life in nature and on the farm, with my mum’s small free range beef herd giving birth at this time. This year they have weathered it through some turbulent months, but now are enjoying a bit of sunshine on their backs.
15. Honey bee – As I was intending to buy a macro lens this year, I made sure to time my purchase to be able to use it on the flowering of the poached egg plants in my family’s garden. It arrived well in advance, and, despite some rained off days, I got to spend some happy lunchtimes in the sunshine photographing bees on these flowers. This is one of my favourite macro photos of the flowers this year.
16. Dog roses – Dog roses were the last event of spring that I looked out for this year, and it kept me waiting! They were 22 days later for me than last year, with the first flowers blooming on the 8th June. They came out in force though, covering hedges within the space of a couple of days, adding some more colour to our hedgerows. With their lateness though, I feel like they also marked the end of spring this year.
This spring has been an unexpected, unpredictable and turbulent season, that has taken its time to unfurl. Traditionally spring is a season that is characterised as calm and dry, with days getting longer and warmer, and the potential for cooler nights. As lighter evenings returned this year though, spring was far from traditional, with a stormy then hot March, cold and frosty April, and a wash out of a May.
Since 2017, I have recorded the dates of the events of spring every year, and with the start of my blog, every year since I have analysed and compared spring events to see how the season took form. Last year I showed that the timing of spring events is heavily linked to spring weather, resulting in either earlier or later occurrence accordingly. Over the last couple of years this has varied alot, so it will be interesting to see what has gone on this year.
This spring a lot has been going on for me, but I have still found time to be out in nature as much as possible and to enjoy the time when one season slips into another. It has felt that spring has dragged on longer this year, with the potential effects of spring starting warm and progressing to cold, then wet. So as this spring comes to a gradual close and the heat sets in, it is time to find out what actually went on during spring 2021.
This year there was a general trend for trees being later in their bud burst, leaves unfurling, and flowering compared to 2020. Even before the frosty nights of April, silver birch (Betula pendula) buds burst 14 days later on 26th March, Norway maple (Acer platanoides) first flowered 5 days later on 26th March, and beech (Fagus sylvatica) buds burst 14 days later on 27th March.
As we moved through April and into May, spring events began to stretch even further in their lateness. For example, wild cherry (Prunus avium) buds burst 35 days later on 8th April, horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) first flowered 18 days later on 20th April, alder (Alnus glutinosa) buds burst 15 days later on 21st April, the first lime (Tilia x europaea) leaves unfurled 23 days later on 26th April, pedunculate/english oak (Quercus robur) leaves first unfurled 31 days later on 5th May, and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) flowered 37 days later on 9th May.
Field maple (Acer campestre) did not follow this trend though, with bud burst being 10 days earlier on 26th March, and first leaves unfurling 5 days earlier on 1st April. This may be as these trees missed the worst of the spring weather, but for the other trees spring events ranged from being 1 to 37 days late!
For a lot of the shrub species I monitored a similar trend was shown as with tree species, being later compared to 2020. For example, elder (Sambucus nigra) leaves first unfurled 34 days later on 18th March, blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) first flowered 17 days later on 23rd March, and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) first flowered 23 days later on 11th May.
Though half of the shrubs I monitored were later in their spring events, ranging anywhere from 2-34 days later, two species did not completely fit this trend. For lilac (Syringa vulgaris) bud burst occurred 12 days earlier on 24th February, but flowered 17 days later on 2nd May. This was the same for dog rose (Rosa canina), where buds burst 12 days earlier on 22nd February, but first flowered 22 days later on 8th June. For both of these species though, it is the spring events occurring before April that are earlier, as the ones occurring in April and May were not immune to the frosts and heavy rainfall like the other shrubs.
For many of our commonly associated spring flower species, there was a little more of a split between appearing earlier or later, but on average they flowered later compared to 2020. Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) first flowered 15 days later on 18th January, wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) 8 days later on 30th March, bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) both 4 days later on 1st April, cowslips (Primula veris) 12 days later on 2nd April, early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) 12 days later on 18th April, wild garlic (Allium ursinum) 14 days later on 20th April, and oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) 16 days later on 3rd June.
The exceptions were a section of earlier flowering species, including primrose (Primula vulgaris) first flowering 27 days earlier on 31st December, lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) 3 days earlier on 15th January, daffodil (Narcissus spp.) 22 days earlier on 19th January, and cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) 10 days earlier on 8th April. These flowers would have been influenced by a warmer winter and start to spring, generally flowering before the cold spell in April.
On average, bird species spring events have also become later this year compared to 2020. I heard my first song thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing 17 days later on 1st January, I saw my first rook (Corvus frugilegus) nests being built 10 days later on 25th February, and I heard my first chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) on 16th March. April and May events were again influenced, for example I saw my first swallow (Hirundo rustica) 5 days later on 10th April, saw my first house martin (Delichon urbicum) 9 days later on 21st April, heard my first cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) 3 days later on 1st May, and saw my first swift (Apus apus) 10 days later on 16th May.
There were two exceptions though, where I recorded hearing my first blackbird (Turdus merula) singing 13 days earlier on 10th February, and saw my first blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) 8 days earlier on 14th April. These would most likely relate to other influencing factors, such as overwintering in the UK or habitat requirements.
Compared to previous years, I have still yet to see some species of butterfly that would typically be on the wing by now, such as gatekeeper butterflies (Pyronia tithonus). For the insects I have seen though, again there was a split in event occurrence compared to 2020. For example, I saw my first small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) 2 days later on 7th April, red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) 26 days later on 7th April, brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) 26 days later on 18th April, and speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) 52 days later on 13th June.
The early emergers came in the form of my first buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) 14 days earlier on 27th February, peacock butterfly (Aglais io) 5 days earlier on 30th March, orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) 13 days earlier on 31st March, and red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) 12 days earlier on 19th April. Despite these species appearing earlier in spring, later flowering plants will have had a knock-on effect for them due to a mismatch in timing for food. Only further down the line will we be able to see the extent of this impact.
This year I have recorded more spring dates than I have done so before, such as alder trees flowering, first yellowhammer singing, and first green-veined white butterfly, which will be useful information during the years to come. This reflects how I have felt more in touch with nature this year even with the unusual weather patterns, such as alot of rain! It became clear as we went through May though, that there was a trend for events happening later and later. This is why I was so interested to see how far this trend actually extended amongst species.
Last year I wrote that spring events are ‘in fact getting later, which will be related to… weather and environmental factors here and further afield’. This year this has turned out to be the case, which shows how climate change is having more of an impact through changes in weather patterns rather than just warmer temperatures. Earlier spring events have been getting earlier with warmer winters, but heavy rainfall and colder starts to spring have been affecting late March to May events most. I wonder now what impact this might have as we move forward, for example greater mismatches in ecological timings.
As winter creeps into the landscape and a second lockdown keeps us close to home, our gardens are once again coming alive. Wrens creep through the undergrowth catching insects, Robins sing to defend small territories, and Long-Tailed Tits flit between hedgerows foraging in family groups. It’s not just the birds though, other species are settling down to see out the winter in our gardens too, from butterflies and toads to hedgehogs and ladybirds.
With this year being a bit different, I have found it a great time to take part in the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch, to further connect with nature, boost my mental health, and do my bit. Gardens are very important homes for wildlife, not just at this time of year, so now is an important time for us to understand how we can better help the wildlife that share our gardens with us. If you have a bit of time on your hands, want to do something a bit different, or are interested in the wildlife on your doorstep, then this survey could be just what you need!
The BTO and the Garden BirdWatch
So, what is the BTO? Well, the BTO stands for the British Trust for Ornithology, where ornithology refers to the study of birds. Started in Oxford in 1933, this now Norfolk-based charity aims to engage people with science whilst advancing the understanding of birds and now other wildlife species. With over 60,000 dedicated volunteers, and projects ranging from bird ringing and Cuckoo tracking to urban gull and bat surveys, the BTO has gone from strength-to-strength.
Set up in 1995, one popular BTO project has been the Garden Birdwatch, a project aiming to understand the relationship between wildlife species and our gardens, and how and why some of these species populations may be undergoing change. In a nutshell, the Garden BirdWatch is about participants recording the birds they see in their garden, along with mammals, amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, bumblebees, and dragonflies. As vital habitat for wildlife continues to decrease, whilst the importance of gardens as substitute habitat increases, the information we can provide now can be used to better tailor help to support wildlife in the future.
So why should you take part? Well, the Garden BirdWatch is a great way to enjoy the wildlife in your garden, improve your knowledge, and allow you to follow the annual cycle of life. Taking part is also easy! All you need is a garden, a minimum of 20 minutes a week, and a way to identify the species you see. You do not need to have a big or elaborate garden, put food out, or be an expert. With the Garden BirdWatch currently being free for a year, signing up is easy. Provide a few details about your garden, and get started recording the garden birds and other wildlife that visit you.
Why not join thousands of other volunteers today, and do something new from the comfort of your own home!
Examples of Results
Last year marked the 25th year of the Garden BirdWatch, and so the BTO have now been able to use 25 years of weekly garden observations to begin analysing the relationship between our gardens and wildlife. For example:
- Goldfinches, Woodpigeons, Nuthatches, and Jackdaws have become an increasingly common sight in our gardens, relying on our gardens for vital foraging habitat
- Song Thrushes, Greenfinches, Starlings, and House Sparrows have become a less common sight in our gardens since 1995, due to a range of factors from disease to loss of habitat
I have now been taking part in the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch for the last 21 weeks. This time has gone past so fast, but has opened my mind to the diversity and abundance of species that visit my garden through the seasons. To sum up my time so far, here are some of my results:
- I have observed 26 different bird species in my garden, with the most abundant species being Starlings (50 on 28th July) and House Sparrows (40 on 28th July), followed by Goldfinches (30 on 1st October)
- Every week Blue Tits, Great Tits, Collared Doves, Pheasants, Goldfinches, and House Sparrows have been consistently recorded
- As summer has moved into autumn and winter, Coal Tits, Jackdaws, and flocks of Goldfinches have become newly reliant on my garden, whereas Great-Spotted Woodpeckers, flocks of House Sparrows, Pheasants, flocks of Starlings, and Sparrowhawks have decreased their visits
- No week or month has been the same, with summer highlights including Greenfinches, Siskins, Chiffchaffs, and Garden Warblers!
So, why not see what wildlife you can encounter this winter?
As our summer visitors, such as Swallows and Willow Warblers, leave us for sunnier shores, and we wait for our winter returnees, such as Redwings, the world outside our doors is slowing down and wildlife is preparing for the colder times to come. Autumn is a time for extraordinary spectacles, storing up food and changing colours, but also a time for us to do our bit, to help our wild neighbours with their preparations, and to prepare for a new year to come. This can range from cleaning ponds and putting out food, to planting trees and creating wood piles. It is also importantly a time to provide new homes for nature.
Previously, in spring/summer I posted on my blog about how to make a home for nature in the form of a bee hotel (see How to… Make Your Own Bee Hotel). A bee hotel is aimed at providing solitary bees (90% of UK bee species) with a place to nest, and for my blog I made a bee hotel that has now had some success. There are other forms of homes that we can make for wildlife though, for example for different species of bird.
In the UK, more than a quarter of all bird species are of the highest conservation concern, with a decline in breeding birds (44 million) between 1967 and 2009. This means that conserving and creating habitat for birds is an important issue, and something we can all get involved in. One example of an easy way is to put up nest boxes, which mimic natural habitat. They create an effective artificial cavity for birds, providing an accessible alternative for species that are currently experiencing the loss of breeding habitat and winter roosting sites.
Nest boxes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and designs, which will depend on the species of choice and the purpose they need to fulfill. Though you can put up a nest box at any time of year, the best time is right now, ready to be used as a roosting site throughout winter and for breeding in the spring. This way you can increase the chance of your nest box being a success next year. There are no set rules though, so why not try making your own today!
How to Make a Bird Nest Box
What you need:
- A plank or offcuts of untreated wood, about 15mm thick for insulation
- Tape measure & pencil
- Hand or power saw
- Drill & different sized drill bits
- Sand paper
- Hammer & nails
- Sealant, a piece of rubber or something similar
- Optional: Hole plate
Step by Step Guide:
- Decide on your nest box design. Your nest box will most likely be aimed at a certain species, such as Robins or House Sparrows. You can also choose particular design features, such as a flat or apex roof. For the purpose of this guide though, I will provide instructions to make a standard Tit nest box.
- Use a tape measure and pencil to mark out the wood you need, either by creating templates out of paper or cardboard, or by drawing straight onto the wood. For this design you will need 6 pieces: a back (45cm x 15cm); a base (11cm x 15cm); a front (21cm x 15cm); a roof (20cm x 15cm); and 2 side panels (25cm high at the back, 20cm high at the front, and 11cm wide). Use a hand or power saw to cut the wood into the 6 pieces needed.
- Next, take the front panel and use a wide drill bit to make a hole towards the top of the panel, at least 125mm up, which the birds will use to enter the nest box. The size of the hole will vary between different species, but for my nest box I made a 25mm hole, aimed at Blue Tits and similar Tit species.
- Use sand paper to sand down any rough or uneven edges of the wood, that otherwise could cause problems for birds using the box.
- Use a hammer and as many nails as you need to make the back, base, sides and front fit together forming the main body of the nest box. It is often best to mark where the nails will go first and partially drive each nail through the first piece of wood first (e.g. the back), which will make nailing the pieces together easier and help avoid splitting the wood.
- Attach the roof to the box using screws that you can later remove when needing to clean the nest box out. Seal the gap between the roof and the back of the nest box with either flexible sealant or an attached flap of recycled rubber.
Optional editions: Add a nest box hole plate to the front of the box to prevent predators from enlarging the nest box hole and larger bird species using the box. Also, you could apply a water-based wood preservative product to the outside of the box to prolong its life and help to repel water.
Tips on putting your nest box up
- Unless there is shade during the day, position the nest box facing between north and east to avoid strong sunlight.
- Choose a location which is 2-4 metres above ground level, out of reach of predators, and away from constant disturbance.
- Make sure there is a clear flight path to the entrance of the nest box and that there is shelter from bad weather.
- Place your box away from the location of any other nest boxes to reduce the chances of competition.
- Avoid using nails to attach the box to a tree, as they may cause harm. Instead try to tie the box to the trunk or hang it, or otherwise use stainless steel screws or nails that do not rust.
Walking through the trees, in dappled early morning sunlight, through swathes of brilliant blue. Standing rooted to the spot, hearing the first Chiffchaff, Swallow, Cuckoo. Sitting in breezy sunshine, learning to identify Hawkbits, Vetches and Viper’s-Bugloss. These are just some of the highlights of my spring this year, wild and full of life. With each new day, there was a new wild highlight to be had.
Following on from my post last week about my favourite photos from this spring (check out Spring 2020: In Photos), I wanted to continue celebrating the lifeline that has been spring and the natural world for me during lockdown. This week I am looking at how spring unfolded this year in my local area and how it looked now the summer is hitting our shores.
Since 2015 I have been writing down a lot of my observations about spring each year. This means I can now look at spring 2020 in light of how the last few years have actually looked and see if anything interesting comes up. Last year I did this in more detail, so for that check out my post called: How Spring Happened 2017-2019.
So, did a favourite of my mum’s, the Chiffchaff, return by Mother’s Day this year? Did the Oak burst into leaf before the Ash (and so are we in for a splash)? And did the song of the Cuckoo return to my family’s land for another year? As spring now slips into summer, it is time for me to reflect on an extra special spring.
One of the very first trees to start showing signs of life each spring at my home in Dorset, is the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). This year the first buds burst on the 18th of February, which shows a gradual shift forwards over the last few years, being 6 days earlier than last year, and a month earlier than 2018. The first leaf then unfurled on the 10th of March (9 days later than 2019), followed by the first flowers on the 2nd of April (13 days earlier than 2019).
Due to a cold start to spring and a very wet winter, which left the ground cold and waterlogged, Pedunculate (English) Oaks (Quercus robur) were late to make a start, with the first budburst seen on the 2nd of April, 37 days later than 2019. They got going quickly though, with leaves bursting forth by the 8th of April (4 days earlier than 2019) and flowers blooming by the 12th of April (13 days earlier than 2019).
Despite the ground, the trend this year was towards earlier budburst, first leaves and first flowers. Silver Birch (Betula pendula) buds burst on the 15th March, 15 days earlier than 2019; Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) flowered on the 2nd of April, 18 days earlier than 2019; Field Maple (Acer campestre) buds burst on the 5th of April, 13 days earlier than 2019. Grey Willow (Salix cinerea) bucked the trend though, first flowering on the 24th of February, later than last year by 10 days.
This year I added Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Lime (Tilia x europaea), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), and Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) to my spring records, but I did not make observations for Sycamore as in previous years. Lime buds burst on the 14th of March, followed by the first leaf on the 3rd of April; Wild Cherry buds burst on the 15th of March, followed by the first leaf 1 month later and first flower 15 days after that; Norway Maple first flowered on the 21st of March; Alder buds burst on the 6th of April; and Beech buds burst on the 10th of April.
Hazel (Corylus avellana) is one species that flowers early in the year, providing a first hint of colour in a wintry landscape. This year I first saw the male catkins on the 8th of January, followed by the female red flowers on the 1st of February (5 days later than 2019). The first hazel leaf then unfurled 43 days later on the 14th of March.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is another species that flowers before it produces its leaves, cloaking hedgerows in drifts of snowy white and accompanying a ‘blackthorn winter’ in early spring. This year the first flowers burst open on the 6th of March, 5 days later than last year, but 24 days earlier than 2018.
After the early flowering species have brought colour to our countryside, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is one of the first shrubs to burst into leaf in the hedgerows. This year its buds first burst on the 2nd of March, 5 days later than 2019, followed by the first leaf unfurling 10 days after (28 days earlier than 2019). Their flowers then followed a month after, on the 18th of April, 10 days earlier than 2019.
A similar trend was shown with Lilac (Syringa vulgaris), where budburst took place on the 8th of March, 13 days later than 2019. The first leaf then unfurled 3 days later too, on the 25th of March, and the first flowers bloomed on the 15th of April, 7 days earlier than 2019.
The flowers of Elder (Sambucus nigra) are well known and iconic in our countryside, popular for making elderflower cordial. This year Elder flowered early, with the first flowers being seen at home on the 25th of April (22 days earlier than 2019). Just like Elder, the Dog Rose (Rosa canina) is another late bloomer, which opened its petals for the first time on the 17th of May this year (11 days earlier than last year).
The very first flowers to be seen blooming in the countryside is the dainty snow white Snowdrop (Galanthus spp.). Over the last few years the drooping heads of snowdrops have been flowering earlier each year. This year though, it appeared only 1 day earlier than 2019, welcoming in the year on the 3rd of January.
Snowdrops were soon followed by other iconic spring species, in the form of the first Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) on the 18th of January (44 days earlier than 2019), the first Primrose (Primula vulgaris) on the 27th of January (8 days earlier than 2019), and the first Daffodils (Narcissus spp.); on the 2nd of February (the same day as last year!).
As spring went on, the Snowdrops and sunshine yellows were joined by Wood Anemones (Anemone nemorosa) on the 22nd of March, Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) on the 28th of March, Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) on the 6th of April, Cuckooflowers (Cardamine pratensis) on the 18th of April, and Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) on the 18th of May, all occurring 6-17 days earlier than last year.
This year I also included three new flowering species to my spring records: Cowslips (Primula veris), Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), and Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula). I saw the first Cowslip flower on the 20th of March, the first Greater Stitchwort on the 28th of March, and the first Early Purple Orchid on the 6th of April.
This year I was so busy in May and the first half of June that I completely overlooked the flowering of 3 common perennial grass species in my local area: Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Timothy (Phleum pratense), and Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus). I did though catch Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) flowering, which first occurred on the 22nd of April (23 days earlier than 2019).
With the start of every new year, I begin to keep my eye out for the start of the Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) nesting in the bare and skeletal forms of large oak trees near my home. This year they kept me waiting awhile though, with the first signs of nest building appearing on the 15th of February, 17 days later than 2019.
Unlike the start of the Rooks nesting though, the start of male Song Thrushes (Turdus philomelos) singing crept even earlier than last spring. This was 13 days earlier in fact, with me hearing my first on the 15th of December in 2019! This was not reflected by Blackbirds (Turdus merula) though, as I heard my first male singing on the 23rd of February, 17 days later than 2019.
One of my favourite first signs that spring has begun has to be the return of the Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). This year they returned to my home in Dorset on the 1st of March, 17 days earlier than 2019.
The glorious return of the Chiffchaffs were then eagerly followed by the first Swallow (Hirundo rustica) on the 5th of April (1 day later than 2019), the first House Martin (Delichon urbicum) on the 12th of April (12 days earlier than 2019), the first Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) on the 22nd of April (11 days later than 2018), and the first Swift (Apus apus) on the 6th of May (19 days earlier than 2018). A Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) did make its exciting return to my family’s land too, which I heard for the first time on the 28th of April (24 days earlier than last year).
This year the majority of the insects I observed, emerged later than they did last year in 2019. I saw my first Brimstone Butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) on the 24th of March, my first Peacock Butterfly (Aglais io) on the 4th of April, my first Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Aglais urticae) on the 5th of April, my first Orange-Tip Butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) on the 13th of April, my first Red-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) on the 1st of May, and my first queen Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) on the 7th of May, with all ranging anywhere between 4 and 37 days later in date than last year.
The ones that did not follow this pattern though, were the Speckled Wood Butterfly (Pararge aegeria) first seen on the same day as last year on the 22nd of April, and the Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) that was first seen 29 days earlier on the 22nd of April. This year I also added Buff-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) to my observations, seeing the first at home on the 13th of March.
This year it has definitely been an interesting and joyful experience to watch how spring unfolded. It started with early signs during the winter, before arriving with a blaze of glory in March.
This last winter was a warm, wet and windy one, which left the ground cold and waterlogged for quite a while into spring. A number of species such as Oak trees struggled with this, but for many it did not stop them from emerging on time or earlier, such as snowdrops and field maples. This variation continued with bird species, some arriving and beginning breeding earlier and some later. For a lot of the insect species though, they emerged late, which will have had a lot to do with the less than ideal weather conditions this spring, for example frosts in April. Thus, how spring is changing year-to-year definitely has a lot to do with changing weather conditions.
So as spring fades to summer heat, I can now say that the Chiffchaff made its return to the British Isles by Mother’s Day, the Oak burst into leaf before the Ash (and so we are in for a splash!), and a Cuckoo made its return to my home. It has definitely been a great spring this year!
Whizzing past our car windows, naturally bordering our fields and gardens, or providing a home for wildlife. Often going unseen and unnoticed, hedgerows are a widespread and overlooked habitat right on our doorsteps. Bountiful and bursting with life, each hedge is unique from the next, with a story to be told and a world to be explored.
From butterflies and birds to hedgehogs and dormice, an incredible number of species rely on the plants in our hedges for their survival, such as food, shelter, and corridors along which to travel. They do not just play a role for wildlife though, holding value in the wider landscape, providing us with services such as stopping soil erosion and buffering pollution. In this way, hedgerows have been important for humans and wildlife alike for hundreds of years!
The first hedgerows can be dated back to the Bronze Age, when farmers cleared woodland to grow crops, leaving carefully maintained strips to act as boundaries. Some of these strips of ancient woodland can still be found today! Since then hedges have grown in popularity, but following the Second World War, many were ripped up to provide more space to grow food and for development. Despite approximately half of all hedges in Britain being lost during this time, thankfully the remaining were given protected status in 1997.
The hedgerows rolling across our countryside today are a piece of history, full of life and colour and provide us with a whole host of resources. So, why not try and see this for yourself, and take a moment to see what you can find in a hedgerow local to you? To help, here’s my simple guide to identifying some of our iconic hedgerow species.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
- Family: Rose – related to fruiting trees such as cherries and plums
- Size: Up to 4m tall
- Stems and twigs: Blackish and thorny
- Leaves: 2-4cm long, oval-shaped tapering to a point with toothed margins
- Flowers: Snow-white and 5-petalled with red-tipped anthers in the centre. Flowers late March-April, appearing BEFORE the leaves
- Seeds: Produces fruit (sloes) which are small blackish plums with a bluish powdery surface. Tongue-numbingly tart to eat but popular to flavour gin
- Range: Widespread and common throughout most of Britain
- Fun Facts: Blackthorn, long used for making items such as walking and riding sticks, has long been associated with witchcraft
Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
- Indicator of an ancient hedgerow
- Family: Staff-vine
- Size: Up to 9m tall
- Stems and twigs: Bark and 4-sided twigs are deep green, darkening with age
- Leaves: 3-13cm long, shiny, mid-green, oval-shaped tapering to a point with finely toothed margins, and turning distinctively pinkish-red in autumn
- Flowers: Greenish-white and 4-petalled in small overlooked stalked clusters. Flowers May-June
- Seeds: Distinctive 4-lobed bright coral-pink berries
- Range: Less common in Scotland and Ireland, found throughout England and Wales, but most frequent in the south
- Fun Facts: The hard dense wood of spindle was used from ancient times to make spindles, whereas the leaves and seeds were powdered to dust on the skin of children to drive away lice
Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)
- Family: Carrot – related to species such as parsnips and poison hemlock
- Size: ~1m tall
- Stems and twigs: Stems are hollow and furrowed, often becoming purple
- Leaves: Fresh green, 3-pinnate, and sharply cut
- Flowers: White, forming clusters known as umbels. Flowers April-June
- Seeds: Round, smooth and broad-based
- Range: Widespread and common throughout Britain and strongly associated with hedgerows
- Fun Facts: Its folk-name is ‘Queen Anne’s lace’. This comes from a folk tale which said that the flowers would bloom for Queen Anne and her ladies in waiting and reflect the delicate lace they wore
Common Hazel (Corylus avellana)
- Family: Birch – related to species such as silver birch, alders and hornbeams
- Size: Up to 8m tall
- Stems and twigs: Bark coppery brown, smooth and tending to peel
- Leaves: 5-12cm long and almost circular with sawtooth edges
- Flowers: Male= lemon-yellow catkins; Female= Tiny and bud-like with red styles. Flowers January-March BEFORE the leaves
- Seeds: An edible nut encased at first in a thick-green husk before ripening in autumn
- Range: Widespread and common throughout Britain
- Fun Facts: Hazel rods have historically been used for a range of purposes from hurdles and coracles for fishing to house building and basketwork
Dog Rose (Rosa canina)
- Family: Rose
- Size: Up to 4m tall
- Stems and twigs: Arching stems with broad-based strongly hooked prickles
- Leaves: Dark green and oval-shaped tapering to a point with toothed edges
- Flowers: Flat and fragrant white or pale pink, with large petals and hairless stalks. Flowers June-July
- Seeds: Fruit, known as a hip, that is egg-shaped and bright red
- Range: Most common and variable wild rose, widespread throughout Britain, but most frequent in the south
- Fun Facts: Adopted as a symbol of the British monarchy and England since the reign of Henry VII. It is also a valuable medicinal plant, with its hips being made into a Vitamin C rich syrup for children
Field Rose (Rosa arvensis)
- Compared to the Dog Rose, the Field Rose is shorter, growing up to about 2m, with slightly smaller, cup-shaped creamy-white flowers that flower about a fortnight later, from June-July. Also, the flowers’ sepals are often purplish, the styles are in a column, and the hips are smaller and often more round. The Field Rose’s range does not stretch as far north as that of the Dog Rose, being absent from Scotland
Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
- Family: Rose
- Size: Up to 10m tall
- Stems and twigs: Very thorny and hairless
- Leaves: Leafing in April, the leaves are shiny and roughly oval-shaped with 3-5 deeply cut lobes
- Flowers: White fragrant (sickly sweet) flowers with pink/purple anthers, only one style and 5 petals. Become deeper pink as they fade
- Seeds: Fruit, known as haws, have a single seed and ripen to a bright red
- Range: Widespread and common throughout Britain
- Fun Facts: Hawthorn is linked to Christian, pagan and medieval rites, and has ancient associations with May Day. Bringing hawthorn blossom in your house was believed to bring in illness and death upon you
Elder (Sambucus nigra)
- Family: Previously in the honeysuckle family , but now reclassified in moschatel
- Size: Up to 10m tall
- Stems and twigs: Strong smelling with corky and fissured bark
- Leaves: Dark green, pinnate with 5-7 leaflets
- Flowers: White, small and fragrant in flat-topped clusters with yellow anthers. Flowers May-August
- Seeds: Produces a juicy edible purplish-black berry
- Range: Widespread and common throughout Britain
- Fun Facts: Has many uses from wines and jams, to toys and dyes. Also, it was believed that planting an elder tree near your house would keep the Devil away