North East England comes alive in May
Kevin O’Hara is a Conservation Officer for Northumberland Wildlife Trust. He is fanatical about wildlife and beginning this month will be writing a new wildlife column for www.thisisnorthumberland.com, called Call of the Wild. If you have a question for Kevin, or a comment, he would be happy to hear from you. Use the blog comment form below, or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. In his first column, Kevin talks about the wonder of the month of May.
By Kevin O’Hara
Northumberland Wildlife Trust
In 2010 Indie Rock band Arcade Fire released a song titled ‘Month of May’; the song lasts 3:51 seconds but, as we all know, the calendar month of May lasts 31 days. During this time there are many wonderful things to look out for including birds nesting and song birds singing the ‘Dawn Chorus’ Butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies emerging from their winter slumbers Trees and hedgerows in flower Woodland flowers Early meadow flowers including orchids and primrose.
May is a wonderful month for wildlife around Northumberland and Newcastle; the trees and shrubs burst into leaf with fresh, vibrant green foliage. It is my favourite time of the year – the bird song grows in volume and diversity and it is at its peak throughout this month and all our breeding species are back to complete the ‘orchestral’ ensemble.
The over-wintering bird visitors in Northumberland such as redwings and fieldfares leave in April to be replaced by the summer visitors: sand martins, wheatear and many warblers such as whitethroats, sedge and willow warblers.
The three returning birds that best signify summer to me are the swallow, the swift and the one so eagerly awaited by all – the cuckoo. I still see and hear them locally but not as many as when I was a boy.
Some resident bird species, such as robins and blackbirds, will have had their first bird broods by the beginning of May. In the gardens and parks blue tits, great tits, robins, blackbirds and song thrushes lead a frantic life seeking food to satisfy the insatiable appetites of their young chicks; after one or two broods blue tits in particular look completely ‘frazzled’.
In the woodlands in the North East of England, the floor can be a massive blue carpet of bluebells or white ramson flowers or wild garlic as many people may know it and it is possible to catch their heady scent even before you are under the filling treetop canopy. Woodland flowers must be pollinated and catch all the available light to aid growth before the darkness of tree leaves envelops them – this is why they grow so early and then die back in later summer.
Fox cubs are always said to emerge with the first bluebells so it is worth keeping an eye or ear out for a daytime view as parents can become bold, often sneaking back to their lair with food for hungry cubs. Early mornings or sunny evenings often betray their bickering presence as the sound of ‘yickering’ cubs can be heard through the foliage.
May is famous for a great many things, but in nature’s diary it’s the hedgerow trees and shrubs that were breaking into leaf by the middle of April and are now festooned with bright, fresh, almost iridescent, young leaves.
The blackthorn flowers are over and have turned brown, but the hawthorn flowers or ‘May flowers’ as they are often known, provide breathtaking white ribbons criss-crossing the countryside and lining even the most uninspiring roads. Hawthorn flies dance around their branches with dangling legs, feeding a host of occupants such as darting flycatchers and hawking swallows. That’s if of course, they have not been flailed to within an inch of their lives.
We are obsessed with tidiness in the U.K., even in our countryside, but it is this tidiness that is partially to blame for the decline in many farmland species. Nature is rarely tidy – it loves the neglect that many humans despise. Within a hedgerow different species of plant grow at different speeds to create an uneven structure punctuated by the odd hedgerow trees such as ash or oak – truly great wildlife trees.
Hedges! Why do they have to be flailed to within an inch of their lives and shaped to look like lines of topiary in Blenheim Palace? There is just no need for it in most cases, yes I can see the need where sightlines are impaired but in most cases there is just no need for a perfectly manicured hedge in the middle of the countryside.
North East England hedge diversity
Our hedgerows in the north east of England are not the most biologically diverse at the best of times, so reducing the available cover and structure by shaping them into box like hedges is adding greatly to their lack of value. I just don’t understand the reasoning behind it especially when we examine the many reasons behind declining farmland birds.
In the high-rise tenement world of a hedge, different levels of the hedge offer different residences for various species present; at ground basement level mice and voles forage and live along side ground nesters like the grey partridge, on the next first floor, further up the early branches and tall herbs there are the robins, whitethroats and wrens. In the popular mid floor apartments are the yellowhammer, finches and thrushes and then at the very top, in the penthouse, are the larger species wood pigeon.
Make it all the same and you’re left with little at ground level because everything is smothered in a mulch of chippings from the flail. Above, the hedge is too thin and to low, there is too much daylight above and to the sides for comfortable nesting, those that do dare to nest are easily spotted by eagle eyed opportunistic predators like crows and magpies , they are no longer safe neighbourhoods.
We no longer need to think of hedgerows as living fences or field boundaries, most wouldn’t keep the breeze out, they are one of our most undervalued wildlife habitats and if people want to see the difference between a ‘tidy’ hedge and ‘untidy’ hedge, walk along them in the winter when the leaves have gone and count the old nests you will see a stark contrast. So I leave my first column with a plea, ‘stop flailing hedges’ let them be and see the difference.
Category: Northumbria Wildlife