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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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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Lovely lily of the valley, fabulous flag irises, oodles of tranquility and a helping of beer (of course)

lily of the valley - _Alicja_ pixabay
The dainty and demure lily of the valley flowers. Credit – _Alicja_

Small yet perfectly formed is a good way of describing the lily of the valley flower. Its string of tiny, white coloured bells hang down from the flower stalk, hiding shyly amongst the leaves which are ridiculoulsy large compared to the size of the flower. I have to confess to being a big and blousy type, prefering large, colourful flowers which stand loud and proud. However, I know that lily of the valley is a popular garden flower with lots of people and so there’ll be many who’d like to see it in the wild. Siccaridge wood near Frampton Mansell boasts a large carpet of it right now, and you can create a circular walk incorporating the canal where there’s a riot of flowers and colour.

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Wonderful wild garlic woods: 2 – Box wood near Minchinhampton

Box wood - wild garlic carpet in wood May 18 C Aistrop
Carpet of wild garlic in Box wood, near Minchinhampton, Stroud. credit – C Aistrop

Box wood is twenty-five acres of glorious woodland covered with a carpet of wild garlic flowers during the mid-two weeks of May. This site differs slightly from the others I’ve written about as there isn’t a circular path through the site – the footpath is one-way leading from Box village down through the wood to the Avening road. The big plus about visiting Box wood, though, is the choice of not one but two fab eating places, one at each end of the wood: the Halfway cafe sitting on the edge of Box village with its views over Minchinhampton Common and incredible cakes, and the Weighbridge Inn at the other end on the Avening road and its delicious speciality, the ‘2 in 1’ pie.

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Glorious wild garlic: 1 – Conygre Woods near Tetbury

Conygre woods - footpath through wild garlic May 18
Footpath winds its way through the wild garlic spectacular in Congyre woods near Tetbury. Credit – C Aistrop

If you’re desparate for some fresh air and to escape the television having sat through the marathon of THE wedding and the FA Cup Final, there are plenty of woods around Stroud offering peaceful solice and a place to restore your equilibrium. Wild garlic flowering is at its peak right now and as the bluebell woods die down, nature rolls up the blue carpet and unfurls the white one. The sight of the wild garlic woods is just as spectacular as the bluebell ones with the garlic’s large, white pom-pom flowerheads making the woodland floor look like a scene from the Snow Queen.

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Snow on the cycle track – in May?!

Cycle track Stroud-Dudbridge - pussy willow fluff covering ground May 2018 C Aistrop

The stretch of cycle track from Dudbridge heading towards Stroud is looking glorious at the moment, its carpet of wild garlic resembling a layer of royal icing spreading out left and right from the track. However, whilst walking along the Dudbridge end, I noticed a unusual sight as if a strange kind of snow had fallen amongst the white pom-poms of the garlic. Had Stroud-based special effects company, Snow Business, been testing their latest type of snow ready to coat the film set of a new Hollywood blockbuster?

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