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Sunny days — but beware those sharp frosts

Nature Notes
by Peter Gay

On a leafy bank something stirred in a small hollow in the gnarled roots of an old tree – common lizards were awakening to bask in the warm spring sunshine. Five eventually emerged to feed on beetles, grubs, flies and other small insects. They will mate later this month or in early May and the females will give birth to five or more little lizards, usually in August, each about 4cm or 1.75 in long and capable of feeding themselves within a few hours. April is a month when the weather often flatters to deceive. Shakespeare chose to liken love to “the uncertain glory of an April day that now shows all the beauty of the sun, and by and by a cloud takes all away”.

An early spring such as this encourages buds to open early, but gardeners, fruit farmers and those who enjoy an occasional glass of sloe gin fear the sharp frosts that sometimes follow warm sunny days as just a degree or two below freezing can wipe out a large part of the crop. When the farmland to the south-east of Canterbury was one massive orchard of Worcester and Discovery apples automatic sprinklers were used in some areas to produce a fine spray to protect the blossom when frost threatened as water gives off heat when ft is about to freeze. But it was an expensive business, hence many fruit farmers welcome a spell at fresh easterly winds in spring that may chill the bones but keep the frost at bay. Bluebells are coming into
flower bringing their fragrant beauty to our woods. Nowhere else in the world do they occur in such profusion. When I was young I would drop a few onto a nest of wood ants and watch the furious creatures turn it pink with their formic acid. In many woods early purple orchids appear among the bluebells. Their tall spikes rise from rosettes of rich green or black-spotted shiny leaves and bear a dozen or more small flowers, each as exotic as any tropical orchid.

Unfortunately, the flowers develop a cat-like smell after they have been pollinated which may have given rise to Shakespeare’s comment that the long purples, as he knew them, were given a grosser name by shepherds and “our cold maids do dead man’s fingers call them”. Kite’s legs and red butchers are old Kentish names. Each year I look forward to seeing the first wild daffodils in the only two woods in which they occur In east Kent, one near Dover and the other near Canterbury. The Canterbury site was recorded in the 19th century but then disappeared from view. I was fortunate to rediscover It many years ago on a loamy bank where they compete with bluebells. Lent lily is an old name for this delicate little flower. A few warm days last month awoke many butterflies from hibernation. Brimstones floated languidly over the hedgerows and woodland edges, particularly where there were buckthorns, one of the food plants for its caterpillars. Small tortoise shells appear to have recovered from the mites that reduced their numbers a few years ago and have been quite prolific, joined by peacocks and commas also emerging from sheds or often from behind wardrobes and other cosy household corners.

Although a few red admirals now hibernate in Britain the majority arrive on the wing from the Continent and it was no surprise to see a couple at rather tattered specimens in the garden last month when a strong southerly wind would have helped their flight across the channel. Bumble bees have been in the news with a major effort to reintroduce the short-haired bumble bee to Dungeness. Thanks to its mixed environment Kent offers a good terrain for bumble bees. At this time of the year they are all queens looking for sites to build nests and start new colonies. I have seen four species so far, the buff-tailed, the red-tailed, the white-tailed and the tree — the latter is a quite recent arrival from the Continent.

Herne Bay Gazette, April 10th 2014

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