Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #4

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” (Anon.)

A little Spring-time aside: Sometimes it is gratifying to have confirmation from strangers (however unknowingly on their part), that you are right on the money, that you have your finger on the pulse, that you’re in touch with the zeitgeist! Friday’s Guardian newspaper had an article (which I only found out about today, unfortunately) entitled: “Spring about to 'explode' in Britain, conservationists say”, which covers some of the territory that this blog has been trampling with the “What to look for in...” series of posts.

First of all, I love the idea of an unexploded season (“Danger! UXS! Pent-up nature in unstable state – may go off at any time!”). But the article also covers much of the general material I’ve covered in the first three posts in this series, particularly as it relates to the effect of changing climate on the timing of Spring. Apparently, the extra cold and extended Winter means that we may be having a “slow, late, old fashioned spring”, according to Matthew Oakes, conservation adviser to the National Trust. The article also notes that many Spring-time phenomena are much later this year than we have become used to over the past decade or more of warm, early Springs.

According to Steve Marsh, a conservationist with the Woodland Trust which runs a volunteer recording scheme looking at Spring-time and other seasonal nature indicators: “There have been only ten recordings of [the yellow spring flower] coltsfoot when we would have expected hundreds. And it's the same with celandines. Normally we would see them now right across the UK, but this year there has been sparse coverage in the south and midlands and almost none reported in northern England and Scotland". Gratifyingly, the lesser celandine and coltsfoot have already featured in the second post in this series. I received a comment on the post, asking why I had said nothing in the text about coltsfoot – it was because I couldn’t find any information about the timing of its Spring flowering, comparing the 1960s with today. But Marsh added that even this year's “late” spring is early compared to the 1970s. Finally, with a flourish, I ask you to compare with yesterday’s post about herons, the British Trust for Ornithology’s observation in the Guardian that: “Frozen water and plummeting temperatures may have ... severely reduced populations of birds like the kingfisher and heron, who have had less water open water to feed from”!

Now, back to the comparisons of then and now.

Picture 5 is interesting as the chosen images represent the transition from winter wildlife to the harbingers of Spring and eventual Summer. In this picture, we are saying both goodbye and hello! In March, as the text says: “Many bird flocks are on the move”. We see skeins of migrating geese, heading north , back to their breeding grounds in northern Europe, Iceland, Greenland, or Spitzbergen. Their part is over in Spring’s story in Scotland but there will be an opportunity to discuss geese when they return again in Autumn. At the top of the picture, also preparing to migrate back to their breeding grounds in northern Europe, is a flock of fieldfares, a large northern thrush species that forms large flocks in Scotland in winter, often with another smaller northern thrush, the redwing. We see lots of fieldfares in Stirling in winter, in large, noisy flocks. In fact, if we want to have any holly with berries at Christmas time, we need to cut some early and keep it in the greenhouse, as fieldfares and redwings usually strip our garden hollies of berries in under a fortnight when they first arrive. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any information about fieldfare population trends between 1959-1961 and today. As ever, any information welcomed in the comments section of this post!

In the picture, the brown hares and wheatear (the small bird with the grey back in the foreground) represent two themes in the natural history of Spring – the brown hares, the emergence of native, resident wildlife from the struggle for winter survival, and the wheatear, the return to Britain of summer visitors.

The Brown hare (Latin name: Lepus europaeus), in the form of the “Mad March hares” of the picture, is surely one of the key iconic images of a British Spring. I grew up on a largely arable farm in East Lothian in the 1970s and, from our kitchen, we would see hares each Spring in the cereal fields below our house, engaged in these frenetic, madcap “springtime mating games” (as it says in the picture’s text). Brown hares, in British folklore, have long represented a symbol of fertility. For example, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust points out that: “Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility is usually depicted with a hare’s head. Easter originally takes its name from Eostre, and the traditional Easter bunny was originally a hare and linked to pagan fertility rites and the rebirth of spring.” The Mammal Society has a very useful fact sheet about the brown hare here. In respect of “March madness” in hares, it says: “This is part of hare breeding behaviour. The rapid chases are a dominant male driving a rival away from a female he is guarding. "Boxing" is usually a rebuff given by a female to an over-amorous male. It may actually occur at any time in the long breeding season, but is most visible in March (lighter evenings, but vegetation still low).”

The Mammal Society factsheet also points out that the brown hare has suffered a substantial population decline since the start of the 20th Century, although it is still common in many parts of the country. Changing (and more intensive) agricultural practices, and a decline in the control of foxes due to the reduction in the number of gamekeepers are suggested as two of the likely main causes of the decline. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee, in 1995, reported population estimates for hares as: “A mid-winter population, at the start of the breeding season but before the onset of the main hare-culling season, of about 817,500; 572,250 in England, 187,250 in Scotland and 58,000 in Wales. Organised shoots at the end of the winter may lead to a 40% decline.” The Game Conservancy Trust also provides an interesting leaflet here on the conservation of the brown hare. This has the following graph illustrating the decline of the hare, based on a survey of hares shot as game (a decline which seems very marked since the 1960s to today).

Wheatears (Latin name: Oenanthe oenanthe) are small thrushes that arrive to breed in Scotland from their over-wintering grounds in Africa in Spring (and from as early as the end of February down south – but not this year, following our long, cold winter). The Guardian newspaper on Friday reported that, this year, wheatears have just arrived in large numbers in southern England. The British Trust for Ornithology reports for wheatear that, although it is a common breeding species in many upland areas, the species was not monitored at the UK level until the Breeding Bird Survey began in 1994. By that stage, its range was already known to have shrunk in lowland Britain since 1968–72, “perhaps due to losses of suitable grassland and declines in rabbit abundance” (wheatears will make use of old rabbit burrows for nesting). There is, as yet no clear trend in abundance since 1994 in Scotland. The wheatear is, however, one of the most strongly declining bird species in Europe, “having decreased at an annual rate of 4% during 1980–2006… Following widespread declines across Europe during the 1990s, the European status of this species is no longer considered 'secure' ... Accordingly, the species has recently been moved from the green to the amber list in the UK.” A very pretty, distinctive and active bird that I have seen all over Scotland’s uplands and coasts but one, it seems, that is in a bit of trouble.


  1. I am now satisfied on the coltsfoot front, thank you! Happy to report that I have seen a hare this year - but we have quite a few round here!

  2. Hi Kate - I saw the first hare that I've seen this year just the other day (Friday) - so where were they when all that snow was around? Maybe its just that I wasn't out and about on the bike! I'll bet the mountain hares were happy though!


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