Winter starts to bite but wildlife persists and small signs of spring begin to appear.

As has been the trend in recent years the second half of this winter is proving to be the coldest part of the year with the first proper frosts and snow of the season coming in the latter part of January into early February. Such cold weather may seem cruel when it comes to wildlife and it’s certainly true that many animals will struggle to survive in prolonged spells of freezing temperatures. On the plus side it does have the advantage of suppressing overwintering parasites and pathogens which can be detrimental to insects and plants in the growing season. As such, it’s often the case that summers after a very cold winter can be good for butterflies – as was the case in 2018.

Talking of butterflies, we have recently been carrying out our annual search for Brown Hairstreak eggs in the various patches of Blackthorn around the site. The last butterfly to emerge in the summer (usually flies mid-late July-September), the adults can be quite elusive so looking for the eggs in winter when the Blackthorn twigs are bare is the best way to gauge the health of the population in a given area. This winter I’m pleased to say we found 28 eggs dotted around the place; slightly down on last year’s 36 but still a good number and, in contrast to most butterfly species, it seems Brown Hairstreak had a generally rather poor year in 2018 so this slight reduction is not too much to worry about.

Brown Hairstreak egg

Even more excitingly we have also confirmed our first White-letter Hairstreak eggs on a couple of the Wych Elms along the western boundary of the site – thanks to the help of Bill Downey from Butterfly Conservation. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, the White-letter Hairstreak is one of the scarcest butterflies in the UK now owing to its dependence on Elm on which to lay its eggs, mature specimens of which are now much harder to find thanks to the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease in the 20th Century – many millions of trees in Britain had succumbed to the disease by 1980.

White-letter Hairstreak

We have recently seen some signs of birds responding to the cold weather, as happened early last year. A few Lapwings have been seen flying south overhead while in the hedgerows numbers of species such as Fieldfare and Goldcrest have noticeably increased. The ponds have been frozen for several days as I write this in early February so our resident wetland species such as Coot and Mallard have had to move on in search of unfrozen water. For when the birds do return after the thaw we have created a woven willow hide by Lady Pond and a wooden viewing platform by the West Pond to help visitors get a good view without disturbing them. It’s important to not approach too close to the edge of any water body as birds and other wildlife get very alarmed when they see a human shape approaching over the skyline and can easily abandon nests or young in the process.

Our resident pair of Kestrels are already noisily defending their nest box so we’re hopeful that they will again go on to rear their young in it this summer. We recently heard news that one of last year’s chicks was seen not far away in Ripley; not quite as far from home as the one that turned up in Essex last year but good to know it’s doing well.

Kestrel

It can seem at this time of year as if the meadows are looking very bare and lifeless but look a little closer and you’ll be amazed what you can see. We’re really excited to have found at least a dozen Bee Orchid leaf rosettes in the short grass quite near the Pavilion; an encouraging increase from just a couple in previous years. Hopefully they will continue spreading around the site.

Bee Orchid

Mammals can be particularly tricky to find at this time of year as many of them partially or fully hibernate. We have a regular trio of Roe Deer that are frequenting the area at the northern end of the site, they can quite often be seen in the field just to the north of West Pond. Snowy weather offers another means of finding out which animals have been active onsite as they leave tell-tale tracks around the place. We have recently found Badger, Fox, various birds and possibly Hedgehog footprints in the snow here.

Badger print

Despite the icy weather of late, there’s no denying the amount of daylight is now noticeably increasing and with it the amount of birdsong. We’ve also started hearing Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on sunny days lately; a sure sign that spring can’t be too far away!