Nature 2004 April

The Chilterns, a good place to visit but a great place to go native

Despite April being a month of short sharp showers we should not expect these to contribute much in the way of water for the garden or crops until perhaps the last week or so of the month. Meanwhile ‘hilltop villages’ temperatures will be noticeably cooler than down in the Vale and frosts, some quite severe, can be expected for at least one in three nights over the whole month.

The start of May usually signals the first really warm weather. Last May temperatures were regularly in the high teens and, perhaps forgotten in the heat of the subsequent record-breaking summer, we enjoyed a cluster of hot days peaking at 28°C. However, compared to this time last year the season is running up to two weeks behind so for the keen gardeners looking for an early start to planting out, beware as I would expect the frosts to extend into early May.

The progress of our typical Chiltern trees as they come into leaf or bloom is a useful check on whether the season is running ahead or behind. Normally the white flowers of blackthorn are one signal of the start of Spring. This can be as early as the second week of March but this year I suspect it will be the end of the month, if not a tad later, before they are fully out. The hawthorn, which is normally the first to show leaves, is quickly followed by the beech trees with their translucent, lime green foliage and complemented by the iridescent show of colour from the carpet of bluebells.

Last year we were one of the first places to hear the cuckoo around 24th April so keep a keen ear out and report any early ‘callings’. On warmer May days the first house martins arrive, having survived the journey across France from the Sahara for the breeding season in northern Europe. Originally a cliff dweller, the martin has moved inland to exploit man-made structures. Its breeding success is dependant on the quality of the nest-building. A dry Spring can affect the availability of the right type of mud which in turn affects the numbers and survival of chicks.

Next month, the maybug (cockchafer) will be on the wing as the evenings warm up. The presence of lights around our houses regularly bring them knocking on the windowpanes as they clumsily seek a mate. I should acknowledge that their C-shaped creamy-coloured grubs are not the friends of the keen rose grower as they cause havoc burrowing into the rootstock, nor of farmers as they infest grassland and nor of foresters as the adults feed on oak. In turn though they provide a health morsel for our larger bats, such as the horseshoe, out and about this month too.

We tend to think that many of the familiar – and the less well known – fauna and flora of this part of the Chilterns have been around these parts for a very long time. By which I mean thousands of years. This is not so in many cases. Beech, now our dominant woodland tree, although present in ancient woodland, was planted in large numbers in the 18th century, replacing much oak woodland, to supply the furniture industry. Then there is the sweet chestnut that was brought by the Romans, the rhododendron via county estates from Asia and the sycamore, which was only introduced in the 16th century, probably from Spain. It is well known that the muntjac was an escapee from one or more large estates, although the likely source of the majority was a major release from Whipsnade Zoo in 1921. Other ‘exotic’ deer have made similar bids for freedom from Woburn, Whipsnade and Regents Park Zoos. Perhaps the Glis glis or edible dormouse also comes to mind that has restricted its territory to this part of the Chilterns despite having been released from nearby Tring Park in 1902. The Romans were said to have brought them to Britain 2000 years ago but unlike the roman or edible snail found around these parts they are believed not to have bred in the wild on that occasion. The pheasant was prized for its meat and was introduced from the Caucuses in the 16th century. While the partridge arrived from France and Hungary from the 17th century onwards.

Surprisingly, the rabbit has only been with us since the 12th or 13th century, having been spread from Essex by the late Normans, although the Romans are also credited with importing them. Even the brown rat is not a true native, having arrived on ships from Russia in the 1700s. The grey squirrel, which has driven out its native red cousin was erroneously introduced from North America to Cheshire and its presence was appreciated until it was recognised as a pest in the 1930s. And finally, the wild boar that was a native until 1700s when it was driven to extinction from hunting. Since 1985 they have been reported as roaming parts of Kent and East Sussex although there have also been reports in the Chiltern beech woods as near as Wycombe and Great Missenden! By the way, you know how robins will keep watch for worms while you dig the garden, darting in and out as you take a break. Well it is said this technique evolved originally from following wild boars as they moved through the forest churning up the ground.

With the woods really coming to life, for this month’s excursion there is only one choice, a ‘bluebell wood’.

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