More comparisons between the the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books. Spring pictures 2 and 3.
"There is a flower, the lesser Celandine
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, at the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun itself, 'tis out again!"
(The Small Celandine, William Wordsworth)
The way these Ladybird seasonal “What to Look for...” books work is to start with examples in the early part of the season and work through the season towards the next one. So, obviously, the second and third pictures from the Spring book show scenes from early Spring. The second picture in the Spring book (below) is a simple little tableau showing two displaying hedge sparrows in among early Spring flowers and a molehill.
The comments about the earlier Spring season nowadays compared with 1959-1961 in the previous post also apply here. The average dates on which these early Spring flowers appear have moved earlier in the year. The lesser celandine (latin name: Ranunculus ficaria, hence, a buttercup species), the smaller of the yellow flowers in the picture and an early source of nectar and pollen for insects, generally flowers about 2 weeks later in Scotland, on average, than in England. The average flowering date in the UK has, however, moved about 2 weeks earlier between 2001 and 2009. I couldn't find any earlier records for the flowering dates of this species, but there is clearly a change in timing taking place.
The text for the picture reports on the pair of Hedge Sparrows or Dunnocks (latin name: Prunella modularis) in the following very innocent and sweet way: "With flirting and jerking of wings, two hedge-sparrows are displaying to each other in a kind of springtime dance. It is a form of love-making." Bless!
The population story for the dunnock or hedge-sparrow (although it is not a species of sparrow) is, however, not so pleasant. Although present all year round in Britain, including most of Scotland, and breeding here, the abundance of dunnocks in Britain fell substantially between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s, after a period of population stability. Some recovery has occurred throughout the UK since the late 1990s, but the species is still "amber listed", meaning that it is thought to have had a population decline of between 25 and 50%. The figure showing its decline is quite dramatic:
It is suggested by the British Trust for Ornithology that the decline may be due to wide mis-management and deer-overgrazing of the woodland habitats for this species. One other thing about this relatively undistinguished looking bird - it has a very complex sex life! I quote: "This unobtrusive little brown bird doesn't form pairs (like most birds), but breeds in groups of up to three males and three females, with two males and a female being the most common." It's always the quiet ones, isn't it?
Finally, the picture has a molehill (or “mole-heave”) in the foreground. Moles (Talpa europaea) belong to the same mammal family as hedgehogs and shrews, the insectivores (“insect eaters”, although moles mostly eat earthworms). You might have noticed lots of small molehills appearing in parks and grass fields in early Spring. As I understand it, this is the result of male moles heading out in search of females, digging new tunnels presumably in the hope of an encounter with a tunnel containing a potential mate. If anyone has a better understanding of this, I’d be pleased to learn what they know. Moles can be found everywhere in Britain where the soil is deep enough for their tunnelling. In a review of British mammals published by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), an amazing population estimate is provided for moles in Britain: total pre-breeding population of about 31,000,000; 19,750,000 in England, 8,000,000 in Scotland and 3,250,000 in Wales!
The trend in mole numbers is unknown; although persecution (trapping, posioning) of moles may have reduced (I no longer see fence lines with loads of dead moles hanging from them, which I used to see when I was young), according to the JNCC report, some current agricultural practices, particularly deep plouging, are detrimental to moles and the removal of hedgerows and areas of rough land eliminates the sanctuary areas from which moles could recolonise an area following cultivation. So the loss of set-aside land due to the removal of farming subsidies may affect mole populations adversely in arable areas (but who knows by how much?).
"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing." (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 1).
Time to turn the page again:
In the foreground, a group of black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) is seen following the tractor. The text suggests that they are picking up grain seeds, as well as worms and soil grubs. It seems unlikely that they would be taking grain, their diet usually being "worms, insects, fish and carrion". Although there is a large breeding popualtion of over 138,000 pairs of black-headed gulls in Britain, most breeding in colonies in bogs and marshes on hills and moors a long way from the sea, in winter, the population swells to nearly 1.7 million birds, on reservoirs, in estuaries, and on the coast (as well as in coastal towns), with birds migrating here from eastern and northern Europe.