Wasps are great! But there’s a sting in the tail

A few years back I was fixing a shed in our garden and had enlisted the help of my young son.  We were busy moving rotten pieces of wood from the side of the shed when suddenly I felt sharp stabbing pains in my lower legs.  Before I had a chance to investigate my son started screaming in pain and it took a few more seconds to realize that we were trampling on a wasps’ nest!

They were very angry so we ran inside the house, stripping off as we went.  My son had been stung all up the legs and was crying in pain.  I had been stung quite a few times too but tending to his stings thankfully provided just the distraction from the pain I needed.  Twenty minutes later we were both virtually pain free but seared on our memories was the experience of encountering the wrong end of a wasp!

Thankfully neither of us had any allergies to such stings but there are very few people for whom the mention or sight of a wasp does not immediately induce revulsion and varying degrees of fear.  It is not hard to see how our dislike of the wasp, often extending to raw hatred, has come about.

With their yellow and black striped ‘jackets’ and facial markings that give the impression of an angry masked bandit these little insects fit the bill as ‘the bad guys’.  Reinforced from an early age with children’s TV programs such as ‘Fifi and the Flowertots’ featuring Stingo the nasty trouble-making wasp, the wasp is one of the first characters of natural history we will become familiar with.  On the appearance of a wasp, adults and children alike quickly recite that ‘bees only sting once and then die, while wasps can keep on stinging’!  The ever-virtuous bee is cast as the noble character whose power is only exercised as a last resort in contrast to the evil wasp who may sting at will…and will sting!


Stingo the ‘bad guy’  (Fifi & the Flowertots by Dreamworks)

As if this isn’t enough they are at their most annoying at this time of year and into autumn – plaguing us at picnics and outdoor parties and refusing to leave either our food or us alone.  Their scientific name –vespula vulgaris– seems to capture something of how we feel:  they are ‘vulgaris’ (everywhere) and well, vulgar.

The ‘vulgarity’ of wasps is exacerbated because, by and large, we see them at their worst.  From late summer onwards, they have become little insect vagabonds – unemployed social outcasts who have hit hard times and now, drunk on fermenting windfall fruit juice, hungrily seek whatever sugary sustenance they can find.  With winter approaching their fate is sealed. It is perhaps no wonder that we, who love sugary food too, should clash with this desperado at this time of year!

But the wasp’s sorry state at this time of year is not the whole picture and earlier this year I got a glimpse into the world of this social and industrious insect that can equal any ant or bee in organizational efficiency.  Walking along a footpath locally I was stopped in my tracks by a persistent sawing sound next to me.  Pushing aside the foliage I eventually found a wasp busily sawing away at a dead and dry stem.

Just last week I found the fruit of its labours just a few yards along the bank. A hedge-cutter had torn over the surface of the bank and revealed a wasps’ nest built in the cavity of a fox’s hole.  The nest was ruined and hundreds of wasps crawled over the remaining surface busily repairing as fast as they could.  Built from chewed-up wood pulp wasp nests truly are a work of art with thousands of perfectly hexagonal cells to house the new wasp larvae.  These larvae are fed by adult worker wasps who in turn can feed on sugary droplets secreted by the larvae.


The exposed wasp’s nest

The nest is the very definition of organization, initiated by a single queen wasp and then built up and policed by thousands of worker wasps, the one aim to raise more queens to start next year’s nests and males to mate with queens from other colonies.  Once this has been accomplished (or a hedge-cutter passes by) the work of the majority is done and the worker wasps must leave, jobless and in search of sugary sustenance now the larval supply has gone.

This knowledge of their honest and hardworking beginnings may not be enough to move us to feel love and compassion for the wasp but perhaps we can recognize that they are a more than just a pest to be swatted.  As predators they play a vital role in controlling other potential pest insect and caterpillar populations and have been shown to be a vital contributor to the work of pollination.  Without them we might just we worse off!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here




The season’s changing, but take a breath first!

It never ceases to amaze me how swiftly nature moves through the seasons.  The intense heatwave we are currently enjoying perhaps masks the seasonal movement giving us the sense of eternal summer days and slowing us to a more leisurely pace.  And yet, come 1stJuly, or maybe the Summer Solstice, some invisible magnetic compass swings 180° in the internal mechanisms of nature’s inhabitants.  The impulse to move, to return, to leave and to migrate is awakened literally, it seems, overnight.

At the local Tyttenhanger gravel pits near London Colney migrating waders have begun to appear at the muddy margins – Green and Common Sandpipers, a few Redshank and a Black-tailed Godwit – all just passing through.  More dramatic is the increase in gulls with Black-headed Gulls now in excess of 500 birds and yet only a month ago there were none.  For us summer is in full swing but for these birds winter has come into focus.  For many wild creatures it is a time to feed and move, feed and move until they find themselves in a safe place for winter and well fed enough to survive.


A Green Sandpiper at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits near St Albans

Of course, not all our birds and wildlife are looking to move off.  Many of our resident birds are busy with second or even third broods of chicks.  Woodpigeons with their hastily thrown together nest of twigs will keep raising young into September.  We have a Song Thrush nest in our garden with unfledged chicks perched precariously on top of the fence but cleverly tied into the adjacent hawthorn bush.

On my recent walks I have come across a number of young Little Owls sitting out in the open and calling noisily for food. Both the baby Song Thrushes and the owls were located because of their persistent squeaky calling but I do wonder how they survive predation by marauding magpies and crows.  The parent birds must be constantly torn between hanging around to fend off attacks and leaving their noisy young in search of food!

While many species have bred or are about to finish raising young there are others, like the Painted Lady butterfly, that are only just arriving to breed.  Migrating up from the desert fringes of Northern Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, these long distance migrants arrive in the UK to breed and feed.  Some years can see a huge influx of these butterflies and, in 2009, breeding conditions in North Africa were perfect and millions of Painted Lady butterflies headed north following warming Spring temperatures to arrive en masse in the UK. That year hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies were recorded, sometimes in swarms or ‘kaleidoscopes’ from almost every corner of the British Isles and as far north as Shetland.

Painted Lady Butterfly

A Painted Lady butterfly – by Nimblewit (Shutterstock)

They are beautiful butterflies that are often easily approached as they feed.  Sadly however for the Painted Ladies that arrive here it is a journey’s end as they are unable to survive our winters.  If weather conditions are right a few may make the return journey but for the most, like so many of our butterflies, they are an ephemeral gift to us, the final flourish on the heights of summer.  So look out for these little travellers – the new arrivals will be pristine rouge in colour that fades towards more autumnal browns as August progresses.

This year has been a good year for butterflies and this summer continues to provide plenty of sunshine for these aerial dancers so it’s a great time to go out looking for them. There are of course the familiar ‘cabbage’ whites and Red Admirals of our garden borders but venture out to different habitats and others will appear.  Grassland commons are a great place to look for Marbled Whites and Common Blues, while shady woodland edges are home to Speckled Woods and the occasional White Admiral.  A walk through Symondshyde Great Wood on the edge of St Albans recently took me through dancing Silver-washed Fritillaries – one of our larger butterflies that love the sunny rides and clearings in mature woodlands.


A Silver-washed Fritillary in Symondshyde Great Wood near St Albans

If you come across a tattered-winged, orangey-brown butterfly you have probably found a Comma butterfly – so called for the tiny white ‘comma’ mark on its under-wing.  The ragged-edged wing when closed perfectly mimics a dead leaf on a branch but once opened the beautiful orange and black markings are as striking as any butterfly.  For me the Comma is the perfect bridge between summer and autumn – the beautiful flickering colours of its upper-wing closing to the leafy autumn browns of the underside.


A Comma butterfly – note the clear white ‘comma’ mark on the underwing

It seems very fitting that this aptly named butterfly, the Comma, should punctuate the seasonal shift.  It is time to take a breath and take in the beauty of summer before the cycle starts again.

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

Have you heard the Cuckoo Clock?

In April come he will,

In May he sings all day,

In June he changes his tune

In July away he will fly

And in August, go he must!

This old rhyme sets a natural calendar for spring and summer based on the Cuckoo’s activities.  It is now July when ‘away he will fly’, but I wonder how many of us have seen or even heard a cuckoo this year?

I haven’t, at least not locally in the St Albans area.  I have enjoyed them in the oases of RSPB nature reserves in Kent, Suffolk and Somerset but not on my doorstep – and yet they used to call in my garden, a herald of spring and a sound of summer.


The Cuckoo Cuculus canorus – photo by ERNI (Shutterstock)

The sad truth is that Cuckoos are in decline and over the last 20 years the number of birds visiting our shores has decreased by over half.  This iconic bird – famous for its simple song and infamous for its cuckold ways – is in danger of vanishing from our cultural experience.  No other bird is perhaps as imbedded in our cultural conscience as the cuckoo that has for centuries kept time and marked the spring and summer seasons.

From Aristotle, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and beyond, the Cuckoo has been given mention and lent it’s name to many colloquialisms such as ‘cuckoo’s shoe’ for bluebells, ‘cuckoo’s leader’ for the wryneck (now extinct as a British breeding bird) and ‘cuckoo spit’ – the frothy blobs of foam found on plants in the springtime.  None of these – bluebells, wrynecks or cuckoo-spit – have anything to do with the cuckoo other than timing – they all coincide with the Cuckoo’s arrival and of course, the arrival of the much looked-forward to springtime.

But our cultural ‘cuckoo clock’ is fast becoming merely a cultural memory – a redundant reference akin to Beyoncé singing about ‘pagers’ or the hip-hop duo OutKast telling us to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”.  Craig David sings, “you left all your money on the TV” but I can’t help feeling that, just like our modern ultra-thin TVs are no longer the place we can reliably put things on, so the Cuckoo has ceased to be a substantial part of our natural furniture.

Spring has come and gone and, by and large, we did not see the Cuckoo come, sing all day or change his tune.  This has led the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up The Cuckoo Project to investigate why Cuckoo numbers have declined and specifically to ask the question what happens to Cuckoos when, come July, away they fly to Africa?

Now, thanks to developments in technology, Cuckoos are being satellite-tracked on their journeys across Europe and down into the impenetrable swamp forests of the Congo basin of central Africa where they will over-winter.  Already the data has revealed that Cuckoos must decide on one of two routes:  a western route via Spain and Morocco or an eastern route via the ‘boot’ of Italy. Most birds it seems have a preferred route while a few alternate routes year to year.  The western route to date however has shown a lower survival rate.

One Cuckoo, nicknamed ‘Chris’ after the TV presenter Chris Packham, successfully made seven trips across the Sahara before meeting his end.  The tracking project is still live on the BTO website and individual Cuckoo’s progress, each with their own nickname, can be viewed on a day–to-day basis.  True to the rhyme, this year, most of the adult parent cuckoos are leaving or have already left and are now headed south through France.

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The BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project – find out more here

As I write this article, ‘Cameron the Cuckoo’, having left the New Forest on 7thJune arrived in northern France on 12thJune.  Even keener to get going was ‘Raymond the Cuckoo’ who has already reached northern Spain and has obviously decided to take the western route.  ‘Larry’ on the other hand is in the Balkans, clearly preferring the eastern route. Not so eager to leave is cuckoo ‘Carlton II’ who remains at home in the coastal marshes of Suffolk.

It is a fascinating project and viewing the live maps of the birds’ progress south one cannot but help feel concerned for the cuckoos’ safety and wellbeing. Hopefully each bird will return successfully next spring but with each mile they provide valuable data.  Much is still to be learnt about ‘our’ Cuckoos but the research is beginning to fill in the picture as far as the risks facing Cuckoos are concerned.

Hopefully, with more than just the summer snapshot we have had of Cuckoos in the past we will now be better placed to conserve their numbers.  Maybe, a little like the Polaroid camera, Cuckoos will after all enjoy a comeback in Britain and their simple summer soundtrack will be current again!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

Dragonflies & Drones

One of my favourite summer activities as a child was pond-dipping.  I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house with a fairly large pond in the garden and so my pond-dipping activities often extended over days and weren’t as much dipping as a thorough exploration of the life in the pond.

Using a net and numerous containers of various sizes I would sift through the murky waters, peeling layers of rotting leaves apart, to see what might be hiding there.  Invariably anything alive would wiggle vigorously on exiting the pond so I would lay the contents of my scoops out and watch for movement.  Anything of interest would be plopped into one of my containers for closer inspection.

I was fascinated by the tiny bouncing daphnia or ‘water fleas’ that I would sometimes extract for even closer examination under a microscope.  Water beetles also scurried away seeking any corner they could find but best of all were the newts.  These tiny lizard-like creatures always delighted and were big enough to hold in the hand and examine close-up.

Just occasionally, another creature would appear amongst the siftings – a menacing-looking larva with six legs and bulging eyes.  Inhabitants of the dark recesses of the pond, these creatures, 3 or 4 cm in length, seemed to be from an alien world.  They were in fact dragonfly nymphs, biding their time at the bottom of the pond, eating voraciously and devouring whatever small creature crossed their path, from snails and tadpoles, to water fleas and worms.


A Dragonfly nymph – photo by Vitalii Hulai (Shutterstock)

Fearsome predators, at least for much of the tiny pond life, I always handled these nymphs with nervous respect just incase (in my child’s mind’s eye) they nipped my finger.  Of course, dragonfly nymphs are prey themselves to larger aquatic life such as fish and birds but nevertheless, moulting up to fifteen times during their life in the pond, they can afford to lose a leg or two before their final form.

And that final form are the beautiful winged insects that we know and love, that having climbed heavenwards from the depths of the pond as full-grown nymphs, emerge in late spring and summer to whizz around bejeweling rivers and ponds with their sparkly metallic and iridescent colours.  Yet, in reality, we see only a brief few weeks of the dragonfly’s life for up to two years of its life is spent as a nymph growing in the shadows.

Every summer I would examine the tall flag irises at the pond’s edge to find the dried-out exoskeletons of the nymphs still clinging to the stems, a fading memory of a life spent in the dark underworld of the pond.  It is perhaps this murky past that has often given the dragonfly a sinister reputation in folklore.  Certainly, their huge, bulging, high-performance eyes give a sense of the alien and the discovery of their prehistoric ancestors with wingspans of up to two feet fuels the notion that these insects are from another world.

With the help of a number of fantasy movies it is not hard to imagine dragonflies and their nymphs being cast in some futuristic role to terrify us and threaten human extinction, but the future, as far as dragonflies are concerned, could be even stranger than science fiction.  Research engineers at Draper, a US research laboratory, have been working on a project called DragonflEye that blurs the lines between insect and machine. By genetically modifying a dragonfly’s nerve system the engineers are able to fit a tiny backpack to the dragonfly that ‘plugs-in’ to the insect’s nerve cord and allows engineers to steer the dragonfly remotely.  The result is a new kind of hybrid drone that combines miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology to guide the dragonfly.

The ability to control such a small flying insect opens up incredible possibilities in many fields: for instance, it has been suggested that honeybees, whose population has collapsed by half in the last 25 years, could one day be equipped with Draper’s technology to assist with pollination.  I must admit that I personally find these developments far more scary than any fantasy film but recognise the significance of such pioneering work.

The technology is still being developed and we are hopefully a long way off seeing dragonflies with mini-backpacks on!  If there’s one thing that the research engineers agree on in trying to harness the dragonfly’s steering mechanism it is that the dragonfly itself cannot be improved on.  So let’s enjoy the real thing this summer – there’s nearly 60 species (including damselflies) to look for in the UK – and why not have a closer look at the reedy margins of ponds and rivers to see if you can find their empty nymph cases still clinging to the stems.

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here.

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A Southern Hawker Dragonfly Aeshna cyanea – one of about 3000 species worldwide (photo by Steve Round)


Make an Appointment with the Dawn Chorus!

This last weekend, on Sunday, it was International Dawn Chorus Day: an event instigated in the 1980s after Chris Baines, a then TV presenter, reputedly invited friends to celebrate his birthday at 4am so that they could listen to the dawn chorus of birdsong.

Of course, the dawn chorus had been going on for many millennia before that, but it was the official day established in 1987 that ever since has highlighted, celebrated and promoted one of nature’s great wonders and one which we, living in a temperate region of the world, get to enjoy every spring.

Living in suburban St Albans the dawn chorus in spring is almost guaranteed from your bedroom window wherever you live.  You may not think there are that many birds in your garden but thankfully birdsong is not defined or contained by our fences and boundaries.  Instead, quite the opposite is true as birdsong declares and defines nature’s boundaries through song.  The dawn chorus is a bout of aural jousting between birds that the writer and naturalist, Mark Cocker, describes as “their version of territorial warfare conducted through music”.

Rising to the top of the singing charts in spring is the Blackbird whose patient and quiet practicing of his song during the winter months from the dark depths of a bush finally pays off. His squeaky winter sub-song endured the punching tones of his relative the Song Thrush and now emerges as the sound of spring – a soft warbling meditation that is the soothing backdrop to every first barbecue.  The song brings a depth to spring and a richness that wasn’t there in the winter months for each Blackbird is answered by a rival bird, maybe a few gardens away, and that in turn is gently rebuffed by another even more distant bird.  A luxuriant layer of sound is added to our landscape and enriches the balm of a warm spring day.

Singing Blackbird

The Blackbird (Turdus merula) – photo by Mirko Graul (Shutterstock)

The name ‘Dawn Chorus’ is bit of a misnomer in that if you rise as the sun appears the chances are you will have missed the main performance that actually begins a good hour before sunrise. It may be that you are well aware of this having been woken recently, like me, well before the alarm clock is due to go off, by the repetitive ‘squeaky wheelbarrow’ song of the Great Tit or the angry cries of Crows seeing off a skulking fox before first light. This is no way to enjoy the dawn chorus and if there is one thing I would encourage every person to do this spring it is this:  to make an appointment with the dawn chorus and get out in it!

This of course means setting the alarm clock for 4am, maybe even earlier, and getting outside, ideally in as rich a natural habitat as possible.  Sticking your head out of the bedroom window will give you a taste of what’s on offer but to be out in nature as the dawn chorus swells, rises and unfolds all around you is intoxicating.  Birdsong is beautiful but when combined in unison with the first light of dawn, the sweet smell of May blossom and the cool dew on shining gossamer threads you are left looking for your next fix.

Every year I make a pilgrimage to Kent in May for a mad day of birdwatching – the rough aim being to see as many different birds in a 24-hour period as possible.  It is a hangover from university days when a group of us raced around Kent as part of a yearly countywide sponsored competition. However, it is not the ‘day count’ as such that draws me back and the competitive flavour to the day has long since gone:  it is the chance to be out in nature at dawn and experience one of the best dawn choruses that the UK has to offer.

In an undeniably crazy rejection of the messages our bodies naturally give us we start in a marshland setting at midnight where the birds never really go quiet.  Bitterns boom, cuckoos call and marsh frogs holler – at times it is deafening.   We then move on to a parkland setting at 4am where the tentative song of redstarts ring out in the pre-dawn darkness, interspersed by the amphibian calls of roding woodcock and squeaking baby owls.  And then it breaks, slowly at first but quickly overwhelming:  the full voice of the parkland birdsong rises with the sun, banishing the lingering mist patches and warming every leaf in a carpet of song.

It is exhilarating, uplifting, deafening and any thoughts that it would have been better to stay in bed vanish as nature’s drug takes full effect.  My appointment with dawn is this Friday…when will yours be?

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here.


Spring is all about the birds & the bees!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

I saw something I had never seen before the other day:  earthworms having sex!  It was about as fleshy and yucky as that sounds but nevertheless intriguing and a moment of profound wonderment on my part.

Of course, spring is all about copulation – why else the birdsong, the buzz of bees and the pollen-laden stamens amidst scented petals?  But it doesn’t get much more down-to-earth than the worms I saw.  Their bodies half submerged about 20cm apart and the exposed halves side by side, joined in two places.  I moved a blade of grass and they vanished at lightning speed.  I felt guilty for spoiling their earthworm fun but, in truth, the joy of the new discovery far outweighed any shame on my part.

Spring has sprung, albeit a little falteringly this year, and while the earthworms are a reminder of where it’s all headed, the flowers, the birds and the bees elaborate nature’s great love song and in doing so invite us into the romance.  Nature has a way of kindling passions in us be it in the giving of a simple bunch of flowers or in a lifetime of devotion to a particular aspect of nature.

A friend of mine has recently written a book about those most sublime of plants: the orchids.   I have bought a copy and am enjoying reading about his summer of orchid-hunting – a quest to see all the species of orchid native to Britain and Ireland.  I would be the first to admit that I personally know very little about orchids – I have found at most two or three species on my rambles locally – but I was intrigued to discover more, especially from the pen of a friend with whom I shared some of my earliest encounters with nature.

I have always thought of orchids as the butterflies of the plant world with their fragile beauty, their ephemeral existence and their, more often than not, extreme rarity.  Such qualities invariably inspire awe and wonder with each encounter and attract devout followers who go to great lengths to locate and study the plants.  It should have come as no surprise then that, on opening my friend’s book, I did not find detailed species descriptions, distribution maps and site guides but instead a tale of passion, of personal endeavour and of mystery and intrigue.  If the monasteries of old sought to counter the age-old vices of money, sex and power with their oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience, then they would have done well to acknowledge the orchids’ part in all three!

As far back as pre-Roman times orchids have proved alluring not just for their exquisite beauty and extreme rarity but also for their medicinal properties – their roots among other things believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Botanists and herbalists across the world and over the centuries have been employed by kings, emperors and the wealthy, to supply orchid specimens, either for private collections or one-off elaborate show pieces. Like ermine in a royal gown, orchids speak of wealth and power…but they also speak of sex.

If flowers give us a language for love then orchids take it to another level.  Not only are they beautiful flowers but the extraordinary precision of their petal arrangements and associated parts also gives them an edge in vying for the attentions of insect pollinators.  As an orchid researcher from the University of Naples expressed it, when it comes to attracting pollinators, “Sexy orchids do it better!”

A case in point is the Fly Orchid whose petals mimic the outline of a fly so perfectly that male digger wasps (wholly unlike the stripy picnic pests!) find them irresistible.  In addition, the orchid scent closely resembles the pheromones of a female digger wasp further encouraging the males to land.   There is no reward for the wasp in this act of ‘pseudocopulation’ but the orchid’s deceit ensures its pollen is carried off, onboard the wasp, to fertilize other orchids.

Fly Orchid

Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera by Martin Fowler (Shutterstock)

It was Charles Darwin who first observed the sexual deception of Fly Orchids.  He was one in a long line of ‘orchidophiles’, my friend among them, engaged not just with the matter of scientific observation but in a love affair with orchids.  For each of them, their discoveries were not so much eureka moments as moments of passionate love.

While I have not (yet) gone out in search of orchids I recognize that same passion in myself.  It is a passion for those uniquely beautiful and unexpected experiences that arise in the secret moments when you discover something rare or new in nature.  They are unforgettable moments, deeply personal and become part of your life’s journey, sometimes informing it and sometimes inspiring it.  May you all feel the love this spring!

Jon Dunn’s “Orchid Summer” (Bloomsbury, 2018) can be bought on Amazon.


Spring Tarries…but the Sap is Rising!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

Waiting is a big part of life. We are all used to waiting, sometimes patiently, sometimes unwillingly: in waiting rooms, on platforms and at bus stops, and sometimes just in front of the pot on the stove. The question at the forefront of our mind is, “Is it now?” – “Is it now that they’ll see me, that the proverbial bus will arrive or the pot boil?” Of course, nine times out of ten, we end up waiting longer than we wished or anticipated but, once the wait is over, we go on with our business with relief and renewed enthusiasm.

Most of us, I imagine, whatever we may have to wait for on a daily basis, will find ourselves waiting for spring to arrive. Winter, for all its beauty and drama, has a way of dragging on just a bit too long. No one can refute the beauty of a hoar frost on a clear, sunlit day or the fun and playfulness that snow brings, but it is nevertheless cold, wet, slippery and generally disruptive. Each of us begins to look hopefully for the signs of spring, becoming increasingly sensitive to even the smallest temperature changes, the first buds and the increase in birdsong.

And yet spring is never hurried. As I write we are emerging from the ‘Beast from the East’ that just as the first crocuses and daffodils flickered into life, arrived and shrouded the land in snow and ice, snuffing out those tender shoots of light. I visited the local gravel pits in the midst of the icy blast and found nature thrown about and in disarray caught by the icy grip of the sub-zero elements.

Snipe, usually comfortably and perfectly camouflaged in the reeds, stood dotted about, out in the open by any puddle that had not yet frozen. Lapwings strung across the skies, heading west in search of non-frozen ground on which to feed. A kingfisher sat along the frozen river above the one small pool of unfrozen water. If that froze too the kingfisher would have to move on, keeping ahead of the ice to feed and giving it its German name: ‘Eisvogel’ or Ice Bird.

Up and down the country people reported many garden “firsts” as fieldfares, redwings, siskins and redpolls sought out garden feeders and last year’s windfall apples to tide them over the lean times. Even waders such as lapwing, woodcock and snipe were found taking refuge in gardens.

All this forced movement undoubtedly takes its toll on wildlife but it is also nature’s defibrillator: providing the shock and impetus to transition into spring. March is a month of highs and lows, a mix of some of our worst weather but also, often some the most promising spring days, when we feel our energy returning and even consider a bit of spring cleaning!

Traditionally this early spring rejuvenation has been referred to as the “sap rising” when energy for life is renewed and amorous appetites rekindled. However, it is not an entirely unscientific notion and the increased activity of nutrient-rich sap within many plants and trees in early spring is a necessary precursor to the emergence and growth of buds and leaves.

If you enjoyed pancakes on Pancake Day then you many well have poured tree sap on your pancakes. Of course we call it Maple Syrup but it is the sap of Maple trees harvested when it rises in early spring in Canada. The Canadians, understandably, have invested heavily in scientific research to find out exactly what makes for a good maple syrup harvest. Theories abound but one thing is clear – the frequency of the freeze-thaw cycle is critical. Without a series of freezes and thaws the yield of sap from the maple trees just won’t be as great – the sap will not rise. It seems the dramatic temperature fluctuations are crucial in creating pressure differentials within the trees that get the sap or syrup moving.

I found myself standing in front of a Maple Tree in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London recently. Planted in 1998 by a former Canadian prime minister it looked bare and lifeless and yet I knew that within, the syrup would be flowing, pushing new life to its young branches. We may not always see it but Spring is coming and if ever there was a positive way to view March’s fickle and sometimes fierce weather it must be this: it is nature’s way of shuddering back to life and maybe, if we embrace the elements too, we’ll feel our own sap rising too!


The Maple Tree (Acer Saccharum) in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London