February has gone. The coldest month of the year has come to a finish.
With rainfall records worthy of the Flood broken and wild ferocious gales, I, for one, am pleased to see the back of it. Get out into the countryside and instantly you notice how March has a different feel about it. The air is starting to warm up, the leaves of the celandines are out, aconites and primroses are up, the first lambs of the year have been born. Spring may not be quite here, but it’s definitely on its way.
As you walk on the drowned waterlogged footpaths, you will be amazed how nature has suddenly woken up after winter’s sleep. Bramblings and charms of Goldfinches are vying for territory with the blue tits and the ubiquitous sparrows. Bird activity can be observed better and more easily this time of year. With the hedgerows and trees barren of leaves, nests are not the shy, hidden world they are during the summer months. Watching the birds nest building is quite a necessary pleasure at this time of year. Seeing how the birds work, interweaving the twigs, leaves or whatever into a home that shelters and protects the eggs laid and eventually the young chicks that hatch, really throws my non-existent DIY skills out the window.
Take for example the long tail tit. For a start they are not related to the other tit species in the UK. One of nature’s more interesting nest builders, they seems to favour comfort over style. A round, almost bottle shaped nest is built in the fork of a tree or suspended low in a bush. Made from moss, it’s tied together with silk strands of spiders’ webs, acting together as if a natural Velcro. Inside it’s lined with up to 1,500 feathers gathered from the vicinity of the nest and even from dead birds! The nest reminds me of one of those down filled mummy sleeping bags. It’s camouflaged with lichen and can take these tiny birds up to three weeks to build.
But it’s the engineering genius of the nest that impresses! As these birds lay up to 15 eggs, you can imagine how crowded it could get once these eggs turn in to chicks. But as the nest is flexible, due to the building materials, the whole thing becomes stretchable and expandable. The nest has an instant extension.
But for me the real stars of this time of year are the hares. Seeing them tearing across the fields at breakneck speeds of up to 45 mph is a real highlight. Hares are the fastest indigenous mammals in the UK, though they were probably introduced by the Romans. This is one of the best times of year to see them, as they are predominately nocturnal. They usually lie in dips in the grass called forms in the daytime and then feed in the night (hares don’t live in burrows like rabbits do). However as this is the start of the breeding season they are active during the daytime. Hares are different from rabbits in that a hare is a solitary animal compared with rabbits that live in a community, but come this time of year they can be seen in small groups as they prepare for mating.
Famous for their “boxing” you might catch a brief, if intense, punch up. These scraps are not between rival males as you might think but actually females fighting off their male suitors. The females are receptive for mating only a few hours a day leading to a flurry of interest from the male hares. If she is not receptive then she will box with her paws any over amorous suitors. When she is ready for mating she tests the fitness of the attendant males by running at high speed across a field, letting them chase her. This is famously where the expression “as mad as a March hare” stems from. This was made popular by Lewis Carroll in the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland, but actually goes back to the 1500s. It refers to the apparent “madness” of the hares at the start of the mating season.
Today the hare population in the UK numbers around 800,000 - down from earlier periods. No one reason can be found to explain why. As farms changed from mixed concerns – growing a variety of crops – to monocultures of single cereal or rape crops, the hare has lost important food sources. Also, as leverets – juvenile hares – sit still when threatened, modern farm equipment can kill many. According to the Hare Preservation Trust leverets are killed by grass mowing equipment in silage fields. Hares seem to be victims of the changing countryside.
It’s not all bad news though. Around Bourne, we have some of the best places to watch hares in the UK. Willow Tree Fen nature reserve is a hotspot for them. The fields near Kate’s Bridge near Waterside Garden Centre usually have an abundance of them as well at this time of year.
Whatever marks the arrival of spring for you – whether it’s birds, flowers or hares – get out and about and enjoy the changing over of the seasons.
It really is a rewarding experience.