NATURE NOTES/MAY 2022: Early spring flowers and woodland walks are not-to-be-missed treats. Plus news of the next Inside Croydon guided walk later this month
Part of the sheer joy of Roundshaw Downs is its diversity.
As wide open and wonderful as the chalk downland is, and it is the reason the area has been designated as a local nature reserve, the downs are fringed with oak and beech woodlands that really are coming into their own at this blossoming, blooming time of year.
And the bluebells are out in the woods, too. Seemingly earlier than ever.
It’s been over the course of the last couple of weeks, since the week before Easter, that the trees have at last been pushing back at winter and have been coming into leaf.
First, as always, was the horse chestnut, the conker tree, whose spiky flowers are now in full bloom.
But most of the other trees, too, now have their fresh, bright, light green young leaves opening out for the first time.
With sunshine still able to shimmer through, the dappled light brightening up the wooded glades that thread their way between the houses of the Roundshaw estate, at this time of year the leaves appear as if they have been painted on to the twigs and branches by some kind of celestial Georges Seurat, each leaf an individual dot of carefully chosen lime green paint.
Given the dryness of the past couple of months – March 2022 was one of the driest on record, April saw only one-third of the average rainfall – there’s an old folk saying which comes to mind and which might prompt all gardeners to take precautions to collect as much rainwater as possible before a probable hosepipe ban is brought in over the summer: “Oak before ash, you’re in for a splash; Ash before oak, you’re in for a soak.”
If such homespun hokum is to be believed, then we could be in for a relatively dry summer: our garden’s ash tree is only now, oh so reluctantly, opening its leaves, while the oaks in the Roundshaw woods have been in leaf since Easter.
But it’s not just what you see around Roundshaw, it’s what you hear as you step into the woods, too. Or rather, what you don’t hear.
Two strides into the woodland yesterday while walking the hound, and it was as if I had suddenly put earphones on that blocked out all the extraneous noise from the Purley Way, 400 yards or so behind me.
There was, for a moment, complete silence, until the next step of my shoe on the pathway. The leafed trees muffled the noise, and focused my hearing on the sounds of nature.
The woodpecker tap-tap-tapping away in the woods beside the John Fisher playing fields sounds different, less echoing than a few weeks ago, all because of the leaf cover now present.
And there are other bird noises – some squawking from an unseen chick in an unseeable nest somewhere above me – and, of course, bird song.
Not that I am able to identify much that I hear…
Maybe I should give this RSPB video a watch?
Yesterday, May Day, the RSPB designated National Dawn Chorus Day, inviting twitchers across the country to get up at an unearthly hour and just listen in to the sound of spring. There’s more information and links to other RSPB resources here.
You can always, of course, discover different things in different places, even within the confines of just a few miles around Croydon and Sutton.
It was this week 12 months ago, while walking around another Site of Special Scientific Interest on our doorstep, at Croham Hurst, that I heard a cuckoo for the first time in my life. Now that is an unmistakable bird song. I must remember to go back there again soon and see if the Croydon cuckoo has returned this spring.
And while I’ll be returning to Roundshaw once or twice every week, it does pay dividends to take in some of the other nearby woods and reserves. Littleheath Woods, just beyond Croham Hurst, has perhaps some of the most spectacular bluebell displays locally – in part, thanks to the diligent and dedicated work of its active Friends group.
The sage and wise people at the Bourne Society, who know about these things, say that the presence of native bluebells (an important distinction from the Spanish invading species) is an indicator of antiquity, showing that the woodlands have been in place for many centuries.
“The presence of other spring flowers, such as wood anemone, wood sorrel, holly and garlic is necessary to confirm their old age,” the Bournes say, as they recommend Tilburtow Hill in Godstone, Inwood at Coulsdon, View Point at Caterham, Kingswood at Sanderstead and Foxley Woods in Purley for their bluebell magnificence. Just remember to keep to the paths and not to trample the delicate flowers.
Bluebells often hold special significance and association for people. For me, they are an annual reminder of our honeymoon, more than 30 years ago, when we trekked off from south London to North Devon and explored the wooded valleys outside Lynton at what we assumed then was the peak of the bluebell season.
But our honeymoon was in the last week of May, not the first, as the bluebells are blooming in 2022. Is this yet another signal of climate change, that a key flowering season is now a full one month earlier than it was even just half a lifetime ago?
And so it was that there seemed to be a rushed brevity to other cherished indicators of spring this year. The period of tree blossom, the ornamental cherries, or proper fruiting cherry, apple and pear trees around Roundshaw, was almost a case of blink and you’d miss it – perhaps due to the relative dryness of March and April?
Even the grasses across the downs at Roundshaw look like they need a decent drop of rain to freshen them up and grow on.
But there is still enjoyment to be taken even with the less flashy flowers around the downs. The sight of what might be regarded as the mundane or banal, the first dandelions and daisies which were sighted before the start of April, was something to be enjoyed and celebrated.
I have discovered that April 24 was International Day of the Dandelion – who knew??! – with a special logo and everything.
The people behind this celebration of the uncelebrated say that dandelions “have importance for biodiversity around the world, yet it is also sadly one of the most hated ‘weeds’.” They will therefore be delighted to know that the dandelions of Roundshaw appear to be on their second flowering of the year now.
Those earliest of flowers – which provided emerging bees with nectar in late March – have gone to seed and new plants are flowering, too, alongside the first buttercups of the year, forget-me-nots and some purple clover, too.
Around the fringe of the woods, there’s wave after white wave of cow parsley, some of which has shot up to five feet tall in just a few short weeks.
Inside Croydon’s loyal readers can come together for another guided walk around Roundshaw with Sutton biodiversity officer Dave Warburton on Saturday, May 21, when we’ll be taking a closer look at the woods. There are limited places, and priority will be given to Inside Croydon patrons. Booking details will be released later this week.
Ranger Dave continues to arrange volunteering days and other events. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to get involved with undertaking habitat management (lots of cutting back the brambles) on site. All training and tools provided.
Otherwise, the Biodiversity Team provides volunteering opportunities on Tuesdays through Thursdays every week of the year, undertaking practical habitat management, including botanical surveying during the summer months. More info here.
- And for some well-researched and plotted woodland and countryside walks in and around Croydon – including in bluebell woods – check out this website: Walks With Rena
Previous Nature Notes:
March: Bumps and ‘bunkers’ to provide new homes for the small blue
February: Heard before they’re seen, skylarks soar back over Roundshaw
January: Up on the Downs, watching for the missing signs of winter
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