Nature Highlights in May

Dazzling display of bluebells carpets Cam Peak with hawthorn bushes looking like iced wedding cakes. Credit: C Aistrop

May is bursting out all over – literally. You’re probably puzzled, thinking the old adage surely refered to June but, believe you me, May is the month when nature explodes onto the scene. After months of grey lifelessness when winter seems set to never end, nature accelerates from full stop to warp factor 10.

Nature’s activities in May remind me of the Rupert Bear story (which I loved reading to my daughter) about the ‘imps of spring’ – tiny, elf-like people who slept underground during winter and then, woken by their alarm clock, come above ground with their bottles of magic potion. They spray everything in sight and suddenly trees come into leaf, flowers bloom, grass grows and the animal and bird life appears from nowhere. There’s such a sudden profusion of life this month that part of me suspects the imps and their potion really do exist.

May is the month of the floral spectacles. Obviously, wildflowers do appear during summer but not in the density and intensity we see now: bluebell and wild garlic carpet woodlands; cowslips, buttercups and orchids colour the limestone grasslands; the white of Queen Anne’s lace and the hawthorn’s may blossom make the roadside verges and hedgerows look like iced wedding cakes; and the birds are creating a vocal cacophony, singing their hearts out to attract a mate. Hundreds of thousands of migrant birds arrive here after their long, perilous journeys from Africa and other far flung places.

We are sooo blessed with all this in Stroud, we have masses of nature reserves and places to see wildlife which are easy to get to and where the wildlife can be relatively easily seen. Here’s a summary of the best places to go in May and you’ll find articles with more detailed information about them in this section of the blog. Just keep scrolling down! All the timings quoted below are dependent upon the spring weather – a cold spring will see the flowers appear later and a warm spring brings them all forward.

  • Standish woods, Cam Peak & Long Down, and Siccaridge nature reserve are fantasic bluebell woods, flowering during the first two weeks of May
  • Visit Siccaridge nature reserve later in May and you’ll find swathes of wild lily of the valley, that popular garden plant which really is part of our natural flora
  • the mid-two weeks see the wild garlic’s white pom-pom flowers smother the woodland floor in Congyre woods and Box wood. Stratford Park obligingly mixes the wild garlic spectacle with an arboretum and leisure centre, making it an ideal place for a family trip out
  • Rodborough, Selsley and Minchinhampton Commons are carpeted with cowslips from the end of April until late May, with early purple orchids mingling amongst the yellow cowslips from early May for a couple of weeks. Selsley and Minchinhampton are also home to green-winged orchids. As well as temperature, orchids seem to be affected by rainfall during March and April – I’ve noticed when it’s a dry spring, there are far fewer orchids around and they’re much smaller than when there’s been plenty of rain. This isn’t surprising – orchids are well known to botanists as being the temperamental divas of the plant world.
  • Birds aren’t as affected by the weather and their timetable is more reliable. The first Sunday in May is International Dawn Chorus Day (yes, really) when we’re invited to get up like a lark at dawn and immerse ourselves in the sound pool of bird song. The maestro of song is generally accepted as the nightingale and Frampton Pools is the best place (and easy to get to) to hear the male singing his heart out. He’s clearing his throat and tuning up during late April, and launches into full song througout May. As he only sings until a female thinks he’s irresistable, it’s best to visit during the first half of May for the best chance of hearing one
  • Cuckoos are probably everyone’s iconic bird of spring and the Cotswold Water Park, although a little distance away from Stroud, is an almost dead cert for hearing this once common bird
  • Butterflies are starting to show off their finery as well – the orange tip and brimstone are the first ones to make an appearance, followed by the tortoisehell and peacock. The one which gets lepidopterists (butterfly geeks to the rest of us) excited is the Adonis Blue and its stunning electric blue colour makes a wander around Minchinhampton Common to see it definitely worth doing – look out for a post coming shortly with details about how to get close to this one

May is definately not the month to be sitting at home with a box set (unless it’s miserable weather and then you have my permission as I will be, too). I often think that wildlife fans and ecologists should be given May off work as there’s so much wildlife to experience. Who needs a BBC nature programme when you can be walking through your own wildlife spectacle. OK, so a pride of lions is not included but what do you want, David Attenborough?

The prettiest ‘snake’ you’ll ever see

One and a half million of them and not a forked tongue in sight, thankfully. The snake’s head fritillary flower is nationally rare but 80% of what’s left in the UK grows in North Meadow, a national nature reserve at Cricklade near Cirencester. OK, I have to admit that this is nowhere near Stroud. Yes, yes, OK, I admit it’s not even in Gloucestershire but just over the border in Wiltshire. However, this spring spectacle is worth the 45 minute drive from Stroud – there really are hardly any other places in the country to see this and at least one and a half million of them really do flower every year in the meadow. Plus, the best bit is that you’re literally inches away from the flowers as the footpath takes you through the middle of this floral exuberance.

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It’s glow time!

At this time of year, there’s a female that shamelessly flaunts her figure and desire to attract a male for the night. She certainly doesn’t hide her light under a bushel and turns parts of Stroud into a ‘green light’ district with her unbridled desires.

But a one-night stand is all she craves and once that’s satisfied, her light is extinguished as she crawls away to lay her eggs and then die. More tragic heroine in a Charlotte Bronte novel than a Jilly Cooper pot-boiler.

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Look out for woolly bears in your garden (or even flying tigers)!

Beware of what’s hiding in the undergrowth: they’re black, very hairy and large – well, by caterpillar standards anyway. Woolly bear is the nick-name given to the caterpillar of the garden tiger moth because, as the name suggests, it’s covered with hairs – lots of them. It looks black but in reality the hairs are a mixture of colours: shorter black ones and ginger ones nestling amongst long white-coloured ones.

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Queen Anne’s lace: stomach calmer and insect feeder.

Image by Jasmine777 Pixabay

Queen Anne's lace with hoverfly - credit Jasmine 777 Pixabay

I guess you’ll have recognised this flower straight away – and maybe you call it by its other common name, cow parsley. I prefer the lace one as I feel it fits the beautifully delicate and intricate flowers so well.

What is surprising is the large number of other common names it’s had over the centuries: fairy lace and spanish lace are understandable, kecksie and Grandpa’s pepper seem somewhat odd, but rabbit meat and step-mother are just plain weird! It was also referred to as ‘mother die’ and it’s thought this was to frighten children away from picking it so they didn’t pick the poisonous hemlock by mistake. Hemlock has purple-coloured spots on its stem which is also solid not hollow, otherwise it looks very similar to Queen Anne’s lace to the non-expert eye.

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Flower of the day: green alkanet

Green Alkanet – credit Pete O’ConnorGreen Alkanet - credit Pete O'Connor Flickr

Yes,  I know what you’re thinking – it’s blue. So why is it called green alkanet? The second part of its scientific, latin, name (Pentaglottis sempervirens) means ‘always alive’ or evergreen, possibly because the leaves start to appear in late winter or early spring, adding a splash of green to the last grey tendrils of winter. Plus the plant hangs around until well into the summer, so quite a while even though it’s not technically evergreen. Another common name for this flower is ‘evergreen alkanet’.

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Insect of the day: the May bug

Cockchafer front view - credit Dave Skingsley Flickr

Cockchafer, May bug, spang beetle and Billy witch are all names for what used to be a common sight at this time of year. pening the curtains and switching on the living room lights after dusk to attract the cockchafers was wildlife watching made easy. But sadly, they haven’t appeared for many years now.

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English v Spanish bluebells: Spot the difference!

English v Spanish: the native, English bluebell is on the right, and the Spanish one on the left

The bluebell wood is a phenomenon particular to Britain – believe it or not, 80% of all the world’s bluebell woods are found in the UK! The sight of the glorious violet-bluey haze which carpets many woodlands (especially beech woods) begins in late April and lasts until late-May depending upon where you live. The flowering season starts earlier in Cornwall and gradually spreads up the country with Scotland’s flowers being last to the floral party.

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Insect of the day: red mason bee

Red mason bee - Brian Valentine FlickrI guess it’s a safe bet that you know what bumblebees look like and you’ve probably seen them cruising around flowers if you’ve a garden and, like me, you’ve been outside impersonating a lizard by basking in the recent, lovely sunny weather.

If I asked you what bees are vital for pollinating a third of our food crops and most of the UK’s flowers, I’m sure you’d say the bumblebee and honeybee. However, they’re not the only ones – there are around 270 types of bee in the UK and one of these is almost 200% more efficient at pollinating flowers than even the honey bee.

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Flower of the day: garlic mustard (or jack-by-the-hedge)

Garlic mustard flower from above - g8lakesscamperblog

Here’s a flower that doesn’t know what it wants to be – so it’s both! It’s name comes from its edible leaves which taste both of garlic and mustard (weirdly!) and it’s been used as a flavouring for centuries. In fact it’s one of the oldest culinary ingredients used around Europe: some tiny remains of this plant have been found in pottery dating back thousands of years ago in what we now call Denmark and north-eastern Germany. Wow – that fact blows me away and I look at this plant with a new fascination.

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