What to look out for on your spring walks

    10 April 2020

    It has taken me over 40 years to really get why we call it Spring. Looking out of the window at the motley assortment of sheep, there is no single action which both sums up the season and brings a shiver of sheer joy quite like the leap, the vertical take off, the spring of a lamb. Somehow, from standing these four-footed creatures can propel themselves up into the air, purely for the fun of it. And it is catching; when one starts, the others mimic it, like a Cotswold version of the mexican wave. So that would have to be your starting point: you need to spot not just any old lamb, but the spring of a lamb. 

    Skylarks and swallows

    A common skylark in flight

    A common skylark in flight

    Not all signs of Spring, though are necessarily seen. A skylark is much easier to hear than see. Ascending higher and higher as they relentlessly and cheerfully pour out their song, they can easily disappear from view into the clouds or haze of bright light. If one starts up from the ground in front of you to start its climb, it will take your breath away. Similarly, why is it that when the cuckoo starts to call (and I have yet to hear it this year) it is always from the depths of a distant wood?

     In our household, though, it is the return of the swallow that gets everyone’s notice. Sometimes it arrives home from its sub-Saharan marathon on my daughter’s birthday – that is a highly prized present none of us can compete with. The flush in bird arrivals or hatchings is carefully choreographed to peak in sync. with the burgeoning insect population; so my poor husband, who magnanimously serves as midge bait, knows Spring has arrived when his ankles get savaged by the blandford fly. It is the female that is after a blood meal and thus one of the very few signs of Spring that is best avoided.

     Better stick with birds; possibly easier to spot from your window, if you notice a regular flight path it is likely that those birds are nesting nearby. Never disturb the nest or harass the birds, but if you can get a quick, discreet peak that is very special sight.

    Cowslips and wood anemone

    Wood anemones

    From looking upwards, try also lowering your gaze. This is the month for an explosion of ground flora; whether in the open meadows or in woody, shady thickets, there is usually something delicate emerging to bring fresh delight. For instance, while dragging myself through nettles and brambles on an old railway line only last week, I turned around and there was a surprise gathering of cowslips, shining out of the gloom like mini beacons. Usually a resident of more open habitats where they can grow to become a carpet of colour, these plucky little flowers which are a taller cousin of the primrose, had popped up where they were most needed.

     Probably the most charming and delicate shade lover to emerge around this time is the wood anemone. Growing wild its flowers can be either white or a very delicate pale blue set off by pretty feathery, fresh green foliage. It is such a tender creature that it shuts up its flowers at night or during cold grey days. Once it has had its brief season of fame, it returns to its corm underground leaving no trace, not even its leaves.

    Tolkein’s flower


    If you are lucky enough to live near to certain flood meadows, you will not need me to tell you about fritillaries. Its name is derived from fritillus, Latin for “dice box” which was traditionally decorated with geometric designs, this astonishing flower weaves a spell over anyone lucky enough to see it. The minute chequer board design looks like something from a Tolkien novel; so other-worldly are they that there is much debate over whether they are native or not, even though they exist in ancient, undisturbed meadows. But, honestly, does that even matter?

    Buds and bushes

    May Hawthorn blossom

     Some of the other signs of Spring demand even closer inspection. R S Thomas could be speaking for these strange times when, in The Bright Field, he reminds us that instead of “hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past” the pearl of great price is to be found by “turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush”. He is prescribing a kind of nature-focussed mindfulness. And there is plenty of wonder and light to be found up close and personal even to the most ordinary of bushes! For instance, try doing a simple survey of how many different types of bud there are in one stretch of hedgerow. Are the buds arranged in pairs, like the ash or field maple, or do they alternate up the stem like the black thorn or hawthorn?

     Is each bud curled up in a ball of overlapping leaves, like a mini cabbage, or are the leaves concertina’d and folded up like the world’s smallest fan? Indeed, are the buds leaf buds or flower buds, and which comes first on any given tree? Is it for a single leaf, like a beech tree bud, or does it hold several leaves, like a hazel bud?

     As a friend said the other day, “Corona has stopped a lot of things recently, but it can’t stop Spring!” Out there in the detail, the sounds as well as the sights, is the brightness of nature, a whole world in Spring, laid out and waiting for you to discover it.