After the delicate dangling catkins and sprinkling of colourful female hazel flowers have shown us that our hedgerows are ready to emerge from their winter slumber, March is the month many burst into life with a bonanza of blackthorn blossom. Unlike most trees, the blossom of the otherwise unassuming blackthorn appears before its leaves. The abundance of white blooms atop the branches and stems can be mistaken for a dusting of late winter snow. The early nectar provided by the flowers are a welcome boost for insects but the blackthorn provides important sustenance for wildlife throughout the year. Young blackthorn leaves are devoured by the caterpillars of butterflies including the brown hairstreak and its tangle of spiny branches provide great cover for nesting birds. Come autumn, its fruits, known as sloes, provide food for birds – as long as foragers keen to flavour gin and vodka have left some behind.
Brown hairstreak butterflies lay their eggs in hedgerows where they overwinter in the relative safety of branches. The emergence of their caterpillars is timed to coincide with the unfurling of the shrub’s leaves. This hedgerow specialist lays its eggs on new growth and is sadly in decline because of the loss if hedgerows and the impact of modern methods of them back with machines each year. Sadly the species hasn’t been recorded in the East Midlands for almost 20 years. Whilst brown hairstreaks over-winter as eggs, brimstone butterflies spend the winter as adults and the sighting of one which has emerged on a warmer March day is a real sign that spring is on its way. Their yellow colouring is said to have given rise to the term ‘butter-flies’. Other butterflies that spend the winter as adults include red admirals and peacocks – so keep an eye out for them too.
Whilst taking in the blossom of a blackthorn hedgerow, look out for the strange looking but fairly common plant called Lords and ladies. Favouring hedgerows and woodland, you may well see the pointed curls of its leaves pushing up through the soil in search of light – encouraged by the longer days and warmer temperatures. The species has a range of common names including cuckoo pint and jack-in-the-pulpit. The flowers, which will emerge in April, are pollinated by flies before developing into a striking spike of red berries which have given rise to some of the plant’s more vulgar names.
Along with blossom and butterflies, birds, as ever, provide some of the season’s highlights. Whilst there will inevitably be much excitement about the imminent arrival of migratory species such as swifts and swallows – year-round residents such as the skylark will be much more noticeable as they offer up their fluid warbling song. Unlike many species which serenade whilst perched, the skylark produces its inspiring notes whilst in flight.
As winter morphs into spring, March is a great time to get out and about visiting sites such as Idle Valley Nature Reserve to observe the arrival spring migrant birds. At home, it is the ideal time to put up a bird nest box or to begin planting and propagating pollen rich plants to support bees and other pollinating insects. For details of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves and how you can take action for nature visit www.nottinghamshirewildlife.org.
Main and inset: Blackthorn at Ploughman Wood, Keren Young; Brimstone Butterfly, Keren Young