That the UK has just endured the wettest winter since records began in 1910 comes as little surprise. Over the past weeks it has been difficult to believe the greyest time of year would ever be over but outside the window, change is on its way.
By some definitions – those from optimists, maybe – spring starts today. For so long the snowdrop has been one of the few signs of fresh life in the countryside but now our spring wild flowers are poised for the off, ready to transform waysides, woods and hedgerows.
One person looking forward to a new season is naturalist Caroline Thorogood. “I love spring,” she says. “The first wild flowers you see really pick you up and make you realise you’re finally coming out of winter.” There is a fighting chance too that, in contrast to last year, we could be in for an early spring. It may have been a wild winter but it has also been a mild winter with the mercury-plunging freezes of other years a somewhat distant memory. “Things have stayed growing well into the winter,” says Caroline.
If that makes a good springboard for nature, then we could now be in for some welcome bursts of colour. Caroline has a long list of favourite spring plants she’s looking forward to seeing and, as Regional Manager for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, she often knows just where to find them.
But of course, uplifting though they may be, wild flowers don’t appear just for our enjoyment, they help to kick-start the rebirth of the whole countryside. By April many insects are looking for nectar from new season flowers. Hawthorn, willow, blackthorn and ground flora become very important for bees and hoverflies.
In woodland many plants flower early before the tree canopy takes shape and casts its gloom from above. Some of our best-loved wild flowers – celandine, wood anemone, primrose, wild garlic, bluebell and early purple orchid among them – are about to grab the limelight while they can.
One place that Caroline singles out to see wild flowers in spring is Hetchell Wood between Leeds and Wetherby, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve that’s a mix of oak and hazel woodland, grassland and wet flushes. “Hetchell Wood has wild garlic at its very best. When I was in the wood last April, it was so thick with the white flowers it seemed as if I was walking amongst snow.” It is a good place to see the early purple orchid and so too is Garbutt Wood at Sutton Bank near Thirsk, while perhaps the queen of all woodland plants, the English bluebell, can be found in profusion at Adel Dam north of Leeds, North Cliffe Wood near Market Weighton and Stoneycliffe Wood south-west of Wakefield.
Ancient woodland is certainly special in spring but the many Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserves – they number more than 80 – encompass a whole range of different facets of the countryside.
“My favourite habitat has to be grassland,” Caroline reveals, “And I love places with big views, so one of the reserves I like the most is Wheldrake Ings by the side of the River Derwent near York. At times it can be so peaceful there you feel like the only person on earth. And chalk grassland can also be a special place this time of year. If you want to enjoy cowslips and violets, pay a visit to Wharram Quarry near Malton or Brockadale, south-east of Pontefract.”
Askham Bog at York also gets a mention where there should be a really good display of water violets in April. Later on, Askham Bog is well-known for its ragged robin and yellow flag.
With so many reserves to look after, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has its days cut out. Much of the work involves not just maintaining the wildlife interest but actually trying to increase it.
At Hetchell Wood a coppicing system has been restarted to create a mosaic of tree growth at different stages.
“In the past many woods would have been managed like this to produce hazel poles,” Caroline explains.
“It was the traditional way but today coppicing is also a really good way to manage for wildlife. It lets light into the wood and the woodland floor responds, igniting a whole range of flowers. It really helps wood anemone, wood sorrel, early purple orchid and yellow archangel.”
Meanwhile at Brockadale a successful appeal has allowed the Trust to buy a strip of grassland to join up different parts of the nature reserve.
“It’s not as species rich as the rest but we’re now going to manage it specifically to encourage spring flowers like cowslips and violets and later flowers like scabious and clustered bell flower.”
Naturally you don’t have to go to a nature reserve to enjoy wild flowers. Reserves might generally showcase the best of nature but over the coming weeks, a walk almost anywhere is sure to reveal a selection of spring flowers.
You can also consider planting wild flowers in your own garden. We can’t, of course, simply dig up plants in the wild and take them home but many wild flowers are available from specialist nurseries as seed or plugs. And finding space for some ‘real’ flowers as well as garden varieties could have knock-on benefits too.
“Native wildlife is attracted more to native plants than to garden plants,” says Caroline. “You could end up with more butterflies, for example.”
Clearly it’s time to look forward to better things outdoors. However, until Paul Hudson informs us that the sun is definitely going to shine from now on, take note of the old adage: “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out”.
In other words, don’t put your winter coat away until the May tree, or hawthorn, is in blossom. You may well still need it.
Heralds of spring
With March upon us, expect to see colourful flowers coming into bloom, from the likes of dog’s mercury, wood anemone and wild daffodil, to primrose, marsh marigold and wood sorrel.
Next month, expect to them to be joined by golden saxifrage, cuckoo flower, wild garlic, bluebell, cowslip and early purple orchid, among others, with native hawthorn, native, wild strawberry, ragged robin and yellow flag come May.
For details of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Nature Reserves, visit www.ywt.org.uk/nature-reserves-list