Beautiful May, the month of lacy lanes with Cow parsley lining the roadside verges. A delicate member of the umbellifer family, also called Queen Ann’s lace, this plant is related to carrots, celery and the parsley that we use as a culinary herb. It is edible but is reported not to have a very pleasant flavour and care is needed if you decide to try it; it closely resembles Hemlock which is highly poisonous! The main difference is with the stems and although Cow parsley can sometimes have a pinkish stem, with Hemlock it is distinctly marked with purple blotches, especially near the base, but as the old foragers’ saying goes ‘if in doubt, leave it out’. This, of course, goes for anything growing in the wild.
Another plant in flower this month is Yellow rattle. This is an interesting plant because it is hemi-parasitic. Although it is capable of photosynthesis – the ability to synthesise nutrients from sunlight – it also obtains nourishment from the roots of other plants, particularly grasses but also legumes, which include clover and members of the pea family. The parasitized plants will weaken and eventually die, so while the rattle is useful in a wild flower meadow – as the grass disappears it allows the flowering plants to thrive – it is not popular in a hay meadow where, if it is prolific, it can sometimes reduce the hay harvest by up to 50%. Yellow rattle gets its name from the fact that the green bladders, from which the flowers protrude, dry to papery pods that house the seeds and they do indeed rattle; children love them!
Meadows and gardens are buzzing with bees on sunny days but honey bees could be under threat from a foreign invader. The Asian hornet has been recorded in the U.K in Somerset and Gloucestershire and it will spread across the country, where conditions are right, if it is not strictly controlled. It feeds on insects and seems to be particularly fond of honey bees, hanging about near the entrance to a hive and snatching the workers as they return from foraging. It is slightly smaller than our native hornet, with a dark abdomen that has a yellow band towards the rear; it also has yellow ends to its legs. Our own one, the European hornet, is brown and yellow and unlike the Asian species, is active at night as well as during the day; like its cousin, the common wasp, it also attacks bee hives. Along with predation, loss of habitat and harmful pesticides mean that bees are not having a very good time. It is important to report any sightings of the Asian hornet to email@example.com and if possible send a sample so that movements can be tracked. Bee keepers will have been alerted to the threat and will be keeping a careful watch on their hives. There is some good news for bees, however. The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) is to distribute 1,000 kg of flower seeds to its members. They will be the seeds of plants, predominately wild flowers, which are especially attractive to honey bees and other pollinators. It is hoped that this will encourage the public to create wild flower patches to help these important insects; packets of wild flower seeds can be bought at garden centres.
Caroline and Graham, who have just bought a house in the Norfolk countryside, have emailed me to ask about wildlife gardening. They have a paddock, previously grazed by horses for some years, which they would like to turn into a wild flower meadow. It really depends on what sort of meadow they have in mind, as this sounds as though the soil will have been well fertilised by the horses. Contrary to what a lot of people think, perennial wild flowers, those that will last for several years, thrive much better on poor soil whereas an annual meadow, these usually consist of the type of flowers that grow in cornfields, will do better on richer soils. So if a perennial meadow is what they want, they should have the top soil removed and then sown thinly with a suitable seed mix. This might prove to be a bit expensive, in fact when we had ours prepared we were advised to do this but at the time there were so many other things to spend money on that we didn’t do it. Although we do have lots of lovely flowers – with changes every year – we also have a heavy growth of docks and other undesirables. Natural Surroundings, at Bayfield near Holt, specialise in just this sort of thing and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01263 711091 for advice.
Towards the end of this month Roe deer will be starting to give birth. They usually have two young, sometimes three, called fawns which, like all deer, are born with their eyes open, fully coated and able to stand and walk soon after birth; this is essential for any prey animal that is born above ground without the protection of a nest. Rabbits, for instance, which are usually born underground, are helpless, blind and naked when they first come into the world. Whereas their close relatives, hares, which give birth in the open, have young which can move and see and already have full coats. Nevertheless, the young of deer and hares are still vulnerable and must be carefully hidden by their mothers when left alone, if they are to avoid detection by predators and being able to see and move away gives them a chance of escaping. This also applies to some birds. Those that are hatched from eggs laid in simple scrapes on open beaches, marshland, farmland or nests on full view, can see, are covered in down and are up and running or swimming soon after hatching. Young waders, pheasants and partridges, ducks and swans, are all precocious in this way.
Mute swans will be laying their eggs, now, which can number on average six but up to eleven have been recorded. The laying period can last two to three weeks, then both parents start incubating seriously. This ensures that all the young hatch out at more or less the same time; it will take about six weeks. After a day to recover they are taken by the parents for their first swim.
The nest is soon abandoned and the young cygnets will follow their parents for the next six months; after that they become independent although they sometimes join a flock. Swans mate for life unless one should die, in which case the remaining one will often seek a new mate. However, it is said that they will go through a period of mourning before dating again. A Mute swan’s nest is a large structure by the water’s edge and it is unwise to go close to one. Swans are very defensive and will be extremely aggressive to any intruders which include geese, humans and dogs. Best to keep your dog on the lead during nesting time and give any nest a wide berth.
Things to do in May:
• Spring flower walk – Ashwellthorpe Lower Wood.
• Bluebells & beasties – Bretts Wood.
• Spring song & breakfast – Cley Marshes.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Red squirrel breeding programme – Pensthorpe Reserve.
email@example.com or 01328 851465.
• Spring bird migration – Minsmere Bird Reserve.
www.wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
© Sheila Sims 2017