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Spring’s lovely show of woodland plants

Nature Notes
by Peter Gay

April is usually a month of sunshine and showers, refreshing the ground after a March drought and giving us our long beautiful spring, the envy of many warmer countries where it is a fleeting season between winter and summer. Many woodland plants need to flower before the trees unfurl their leaves and cast them into shade. Primroses are at their best, thrum-eyed and pin-eyed. Their name means first rose. Soon they will be joined by cowslips and a few false oxlips, the infertile but often robust cross between the two. There is a true oxlip in East Anglian woods th all its pale flowers drooping to the same side whereas those of the false oxlip are more upright, deeper yellow and spread all round the stalk. Just occasionally far from any houses you may come across a pink primrose in the woods or a brownish red cowslip on the downs, perhaps a genetic variant rather than a cross with a garden polyanthus.

Sweet violets with violet-blue, white or even lilac flowers have been flowering for a month in sheltered corners, usually in quite large patches. Now dog violets are coming into flower, scentless but beautiful. Three dog violets are common in Kent, the hairy violet which has mauve flowers and favours old chalk grassland, the early dog-violet with small pale blue flowers, often seen in woodlands and ancient hedgerows, and the common dog-violet with larger darker flowers. The heath dog violet with bright blue flowers also occurs in a few places but is extremely rare. Wood anemones, usually white but sometimes pink, have been slow to carpet the woods this spring. Close by you may see exquisite tiny green plants with five little flowers clustered on a stalk all facing in different directions. Their name is moschatel or townhall clock.

Bluebells will probably not be at their best before early May as temperatures so far this year are below the 30-year average but when they are fully out look for early purple orchids scattered among them, a beautiful orchid with an unfortunate cat-like scent which also occasionally appears as a pure-white albino. Another wild flower to look for if you stroll above the white cliffs from St Margaret’s Bay to Dover is the early spider orchid, usually in flower before the end of the month and only 10 to 15cm high (three to four inches) except at Samphire Hoe on the Channel Tunnel spoil and nearby old fallen chalk slips where they reach 25 to 30cm (10 to 12 inches).

I was interested to hear about a project in Warwickshire to try to reintroduce hedgehogs to an area from which they have disappeared. The fate of the hedgehog is a sad story. Slug bait and other pesticides have undoubtedly had a role in their decline, but the vast increase in the number of badgers is also a factor — out- competing them for food and preying on them too, which is why they are now more likely to be seen in urban gardens where badgers are absent. When I was young a local dairy farmer took me to the one badger sett on his land to watch them emerge at dusk. When I returned home hedgehogs were snuffling in the garden. They were once so common that their road deaths were a subject of cartoons. Nowadays it is badgers that we see dead on the roadside.

Just across the Thames estuary our Essex neighbours are trying to reintroduce red squirrels. I’ve suggested in the past that it might be possible to do the same on the Isle of Sheppey. Imagine crossing the Swale to newly planted woods to see a little creature we thought we had lost. The Kent Wildlife Trust’s successful reintroduction of beavers at Ham Fen over 12 years ago shows what can be done. Perhaps the reintroduction of red squirrels could be the next task but first why not reintroduce the pine marten, a natural squirrel predator to control the greys, they would certainly be at home in Blean Woods.

Herne Bay Gazette, April 2nd 2015

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