Hedgerows are rustling with new life

LAST April our wonderful bluebell woods provided one enduring positive image of life during 40 days of lockdown.

LIFE DURING LOCKDOWN: bluebells in a Chilterns wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As the pandemic swept the country and travel restrictions limited our movements to the byways around our homes, it was an emotional and confusing month for many.

OPEN ASPECT: walking near Coleshill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Thankfully one year on, those glorious vistas of dancing bluebells are not the only symbol of hope to cling onto.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the River Chess near Scotsbridge PICTURE: Debbie Chapman

They still may be the ultimate symbol of the Chilterns countryside, but other colours are also fighting for our attention: the swathes of cherry and apple blossom, the cowslips dotting local fields or wild garlic springing up by a country roadside.

SCENT OF SPRING: wild garlic PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Oil seed rape is beginning to flower, the creamy coloured leaves of the blackthorn have been joined by hawthorn blossom, and there’s a positive frenzy of activity among those colourful hedgerows.

TINY TITBITS: a mouse forages for food PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Between nest-building and feeding new families, our garden birds are frantically busy with their household chores.

HOME COMFORTS: a jay searches for nesting materials PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There are all those young mouths to feed, tasty morsels to discover and take back home to deliver.

MOUTHS TO FEED: a robin picks up a tasty snack PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It’s not just the birds who are on the lookout for food either: our resident mammals can also sometimes be spotted out and about on breakfast duty.

ON THE PROWL: a fox heads home with food for the family PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Living close to water we’re lucky enough to be treated to an array of delightful wildfowl too, all very individual characters.

DRESSED TO IMPRESS: a mandarin duck PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But the circle of life can be cruel at this time of year. One day a proud mother duck appears at the door with 15 delightful fluffy chicks waddling in her wake.

FLUFFY BROOD: greylag goslings PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But then we have to watch and wait as the family gradually gets whittled down in size by hungry herons and other local predators.

FISHING EXPEDITION: a pair of egrets PICTURE: Nick Bell

Soon there and nine…and then six…and then five. A week or two later and there are still a trio healthy looking ducklings snapping at insects on the pond, though their small size still makes them look a little too much like tasty snacks for mum to relax entirely.

CHEEKY CHARACTER: an inquisitive starling PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Close by, a cheeky starling has set up home in a neighbour’s eaves and has become a colourful and precocious addition to the characters round the feeders.

SMART PLUMAGE: a starling proves a confident new arrival PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Prone to strut about in his smart distinctive plumage like a Cockney costermonger donning their Pearly King outfit for the first time, he is disproportionately cocky for his size, elbowing the bulkier ducks and pigeons aside as if it is they who are intruding on his patch.

THRIVING: the speckled wood butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

April sees the emergence of a whole array of insects, reptiles and butterflies, like the striking orange tip butterflies which have spent the winter months as a chrysalis hidden among last year’s vegetation, or the speckled wood, which seem to have been thriving in both numbers and distribution over the past 40 years as a result of climate change.

DISTINCTIVE WINGS: the orange-tip butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Now they’re on the wing, feeding on spring flower nectar and looking for a mate, another welcome splash of colour in a landscape that has fully awoken from the drab, dreary days of winter.

FLORAL DISPLAY: the landscape wakes up after winter PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

If the colours provide splashes of detail worthy of close inspection on those backroad rambles and woodland wanders, they also provide a striking backdrop of hues for distant vistas too, the green shoots and bursting buds a welcome reminder that spring has once again returned with a vengeance.

SPRING IN THE AIR: the view near Coleshill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

There may still be a chill in the morning air, but the morning dog walk is no longer a battle against the elements, and now there’s something new and exciting to discover at every turn in the path.

INTO THE WOODS: an early morning walk PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

For the earliest risers there are sneaky glimpses of the natural world preparing to meet the day…deer browsing in the woods or a fox returning proudly back to its den with its prey.

STRANGER DANGER: a muntjac senses an intruder PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

In April 2020 Melissa Harrison wrote movingly of the bittersweet emotions associated with witnessing spring at the height of lockdown, a theme echoed in her podcast of the same name.

COLOUR CONTRASTS: a peacock butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“For some, spring is making confinement feel worse,” she wrote. “But I find it immensely comforting to sense the seasons’ ancient rhythms, altered but as yet uininterrupted, pulsing slow beneath our human lives.

SWEET MELODY: linnets need seeds throughout the year PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“Onwards spring romps, as miraculous and dizzying as ever, whether humans are there to witness it or not.”

SNAPPY DRESSER: the colourful goldfinch PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Luckily, this year it is indeed possible to witness it again at close hand, not just in our own immediate corner of the woods, but with the freedom to travel a little further afield, even if our awareness of the pandemic dangers is as real as ever.

LITTLE BEAUTY: the holly blue butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Last year we could not stray far, and it helped to focus our minds on the beauty of the natural world that we so often take for granted.

LOCKDOWN LIMITS: the pandemic cast long shadows PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Once more offered the freedom to travel a little further in search of the natural wonders around us, it’s a time to appreciate the true wonder of that annual “miraculous” reawakening.

SPRING AWAKENING: the green-veined white butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“There is a silent eloquence/In every wild bluebell,” wrote a 20-year-old Anne Bronte all those years ago – and from Ashridge to Cliveden, Hodgemoor woods to Watlington Hill, those vivid symbols of nature’s beauty that were so very precious 12 months ago remain as eloquent as ever, carpeting woodland floors across the Chilterns.

ELOQUENT SYMBOL: Chilterns bluebells PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for May, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Rare attractions on the reserve

WEST of Marlow is prime walking country, with the Chiltern Way leading out through Bovingdon Green towards Rotten Row and picturesque Hambleden.

Enticing footpaths split off in every direction, and those favouring a circular loop can take a four-mile circuit from the Royal Oak that takes in both a section of the Chiltern Way and Marlow Common.

One highlight along the route is Homefield Wood, a site of special scientific interest owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

LIGHT AND SHADE: fern fronds lit by the sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Here, the chalk grassland of the small but peaceful nature reserve makes it one of just three sites in the country where rare military orchids can be found – not to mention offering a perfect habitat for birds, butterflies, moths and other insects.

WELCOME GUEST: bees are vital for pollination PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The nature reserve may be small, at about 15 acres, but the herb-rich grassland offers a chance to see Chiltern gentians and upright brome grass, as well as a variety of orchids, though visitors need to be careful to avoid trampling rare plants that may not yet be in flower when the reserve is at its busiest towards the end of May and in early June.

As reserves manager Mark Vallance explains, the military orchid is so called because its dense spikes of pinkish-violet flowers have petals and sepals folded in such a way that they resemble a knight’s helmet, with the lower petal shaped like a human form with ‘arms’ and ‘legs’, and spots which resemble buttons on a jacket.

IN THE PINK: foxgloves flourish in late spring, bringing a splash of colour to the woods

Ferns and foxgloves make Homefield a delight in the late spring, and the wood has a mixture of young beech plantations, with some conifers and many native trees.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often be heard calling during the day.

PARTRIDGE FAMILY: a variety of birds can be found in the woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It’s only a couple of miles west of Marlow but parking is very limited, so getting there on foot is an environmentally kinder and more enjoyable way to travel.

MORNING LIGHT: Homefield features a variety of different trees PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There’s been woodland on this warm slope for at least 200 years, though forestry work has created many changes. Nowadays the reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: deer browse woodland shrubs and herbs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The rides and glades are home to a range of mammals too, from inquisitive squirrels to shy fallow and roe deer. But for sheer variety, the prize has to go to the huge population of butterflies and moths.

WOODLAND CHOIR: a robin strikes up a song PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterfly species range from the marbled white and white-letter hairstreak to the silver-washed fritillary and some 400 species of moth have been recorded, including blotched emerald and striped lychnis.

SUMMER DANCE: butterflies and moths flourish at Homefield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Visit the BBOWT website for more information about Homefield Wood and how to get there.

Welcome splash of summer colour

BUTTERFLIES are among our most beautiful summer visitors – and the only insects that we universally love to welcome to our gardens (unless you grow cabbages, perhaps).

But how well do you know the most common species? We have become so removed from daily contact with the countryside that many of us are unfamiliar with all but the most iconic or instantly recognisable, like the peacock, small tortoiseshell or painted lady.

It doesn’t help that they flit about so quickly that it can be hard to study them closely, though Butterfly Conservation have produced a handy series of spotters’ guides as part of their ongoing Big Butterfly Count, as featured on our Nature Guides page.

Britain has about 56 species in total, with about three dozen in the Chilterns, as captured in a colourful charity wallchart by members of the Chesham Wildlife group.

With many families exploring their local lanes and footpaths during lockdown, there’s been an upsurge of interest in the natural world, and TV programmes like Springwatch have helped spread the word – along with enthusiastic young naturalists like Rebecca’s Butterfly Farm on Twitter and Youtube.

Habitat loss is a major problem for many butterfly series, especially specialists like the marsh fritillary which can be extremely fussy, and if their food plant or habitat becomes scarce, so do they.

Some specialists, such as the high brown and pearl-bordered fritillaries, are near to extinction in Britain, while other wider countryside species have also declined in areas where agricultural activities have turned much of the countryside into an ecological desert.

Although many factors have contributed to butterfly decline – a changing climate, pesticides and habitat loss – some species have increased in abundance, so it’s certainly not all bad news.

More than 72,000 citizen scientists have been taking part in the annual butterfly count, with a million butterflies spotted – the top five being the large white, small white, gatekeeper, peacock and meadow brown.

But did you immediately recognise the species featured on this page? From the top they were: a gatekeeper at Stoke Common, a peacock at Woolman’s Wood, a silver-washed fritillary at Black Park and a cinnabar moth caterpillar at Stoke Common…

Nature lovers needed now

NATURE enthusiasts across the Chilterns are being invited to help monitor and protect local species on their patch.

A four-year citizen science project has started to recruit volunteers who can study how birds, butterflies and plants across the area are coping with climate and habitat changes.

WHAT’S OUT THERE?: a Duke Of Burgundy butterfly and cowslip PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The Tracking The Impact project is part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board.

Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.

The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.

To deliver the project the CCC has teamed up with Butterfly Conservation, British Trust for Ornithology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Plantlife, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust and the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Environmental Records Centre.

Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.

BIRD IN THE HAND: a corn bunting PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.

Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.

The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.

To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at nmarriner@chilternsaonb.org.

Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.

Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.

Exotic sights in St Albans

VISITORS get a last chance to savour some spectacular floral displays and exotic butterflies this weekend as Aylett Nurseries’ “autumn festival” draws to a close.

The Hertfordshire family nursery has long been associated with cultivating dahlias, and has won awards for decades for its stunning displays of the bushy perennials which first arrived in Britain from their native Mexico more than 200 years ago.

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A marquee in the main nursery contains a magnificent splash of colour with its array of home-grown dahlias on the travel theme of “The Way To Go”, while the Celebration Garden and dahlia field where the plants are grown are also open for charity as part of the National Garden Scheme.

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Dahlias were a great passion of the late Roger Aylett, who started the business on the same 7½ acres of land at the age of 21 and was soon dispatching the stunning plants to all corners of the country.

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Inside the marquee this year are more than 55 dahlia varieties freshly cut from the dahlia field, where visitors can use ribbons to pick out their favourites.

The “flagship” of the nursery for over 60 years, since 1961 Aylett displays have picked up 55 gold medals at Royal Horticultural Society annual shows – and it’s not hard to see why.

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Declared the national flower of Mexico in 1963 and grown as a food crop by the Aztecs, there are 42 species of dahlia, with hybrids commonly grown as garden plants.

The official RHS classification lists 14 different groups and there are more than 57,000 cultivars providing an extraordinarily diverse array of colours and shapes.

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For younger visitors less overwhelmed by the displays in the dahlia marquee, there is a last chance to visit “Butterfly Corner”, an enclosed area housing an array of tropical plants and exotic butterflies.

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These include the postman, flambeau and stunning blue morpho, one of the largest in the world. Guests can learn about the fascinating life cycle of the butterfly and watch butterflies feed and fly.

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There is a puparium where new butterflies emerge and younger gardeners can enjoy spotting the different species, caterpillars and butterfly eggs. The butterflies, eggs, caterpillars and plants will be relocated to the Butterfly House at Whipsnade Zoo when the exhibition closes this weekend.

Visitors to the nursery this weekend also get the chance to vote in the Around the World Crate Competition where individuals, schools, clubs and associations were invited to compete for £100 of gift vouchers.

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The competition focuses on the theme of transport and travel and entrants were encouraged to create a miniature world inside a wooden crate which could be displayed during the festival.

Winners will be decided by public vote, with the winner announced on Monday.

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Postcard from . . . Chartwell

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.

Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.

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The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?

Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.

Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.

Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.

Next up, butterflies.

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Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent –  this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.

Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.

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Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.

No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.

Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.

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Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…