Spring has sprung
European gorse scattered at low density across the hill is one of the first plants to flower, and fill the air with the smell of coconut. In late April, the tiny white flowers of spring annuals such as upright chickweed and shepherds' cress, start to appear on the south-facing slopes.
In May, around disturbed ground and old sheep feeding sites, the ground can turn blood red with the flowers of sheep's sorrel. The old name for this is 'sour dock' or 'vinegar dock' and its scientific name, Rumex acetosella, indicates the presence of ascetic acid or vinegar.
Also in May, heath bedstraw flowers in a profusion of white. In the past, bedstraws were stuffed into old straw mattresses to add fragrance.
Small groups of non-breeding ravens will be feeding on the plateau, but mature pairs breed early. Eggs are laid in February and there will be young in the nest from mid March onwards.
Parents may be seen foraging for food on any hillside or plateau, particularly as young become well grown and need increasing amounts of food during April.
Breeding birds arrive back in increasing numbers from mid March onwards, and start singing and displaying to establish their territories. Stonechat start nesting in mid April and snipe and ring ouzel in late April, though most species wait until early May to lay eggs. Ground-nesting birds also start to make their nests.
Over the years, the numbers of teal, snipe and curlew have dwindled, but red grouse have increased because of the management of the heather. Pairs of red grouse can be seen feeding in the short heather until early May and you’ll be able to hear their distinctive cackling call. However, once the nest is made and the eggs laid, grouse are rarely seen or heard until the autumn.
Wheatear, the first of the inter-continental migrants, pass through in numbers from mid March onwards; hobbies in late April and early May, whinchat in early May and, in an exceptional year, dotterell might be seen at this time too.
One of the first large insects to be seen in early spring is the over-wintered fox moth caterpillar. Also at this time you might catch sight of the rare bilberry bumble bee, which may be seen in good numbers nectaring on willow by the reservoir in New Pool Hollow.
Moths and butterflies
In April, emperor moths (which have spent the winter as pupae) emerge and, on sunny days, can be seen zig-zagging over heather or bilberry in search of a mate. These impressive moths will remain until late May.
By the end of April, green hairstreak butterflies can also be seen around the gorse bushes on the valley sides and St Mark’s flies appear in swarms, drifting over vegetation with their long legs dangling. On dry tracks, tawny mining bees excavate burrows, leaving small tell-tale pyramids of earth.
As the days warm up, many of the other butterflies and moths start to appear. In May, orange tips may be seen laying eggs on the lady’s smock in wet flushes and the first brood of small coppers can be seen in sunny sheltered areas.
By late spring, small heath butterflies can be seen, as well as many moths including large fox moths and oak eggars.
On the pools, large reds are the first damselflies to emerge and they will remain throughout summer. Similarly, in stony-bottomed streams, beautiful demoiselles start to emerge.
Amphibians become active around this time of year, with frogs spawning in early March and common toads a few weeks later.
Palmate newts appear in the ponds in April to court and lay eggs. In late April on warm sunny days, common lizards bask in the sun, struggling to absorb sufficient solar radiation to become active.