Cover image: spring brings flowers, birdsong, and the struggle to survive for animals like this roe deer. © Jon Roberts
Three habitats dominate the landscapes of upland Yorkshire. Pastoral fields unfold across rolling hills, with carpets of nitrogen-green ryegrass sustaining herds of cattle and, in less fertile areas, flocks of bumbling sheep. On ground that is steeper, rockier, or less nutritious, swathes of heather turn the landscape brown, concealing red grouse stocked by shooting interests. But where neither agriculture nor grousekeeping is profitable – in steep-sided ghylls, along babbling streams – native trees still dominate. These woodlands have a different character to those of bucolic southern England: the trees a little more robust, the soil a little less accommodating, the whole landscape a little less human.
March arrives, and with it, the first signs of spring. On some days clouds sweep down from the Pennines and the Dales, clogging the air with fog or loosing barrages of sleet and hail to pummel the slowly waking earth. Other days, gales blow in off the Atlantic, sweeping the sky clear and raw with bitter winds. But occasionally, when the winds still and the clouds part, the sun’s warmth can be felt for the first time in months. The birds are some of the first to notice this change. Robins have been singing their cascading notes all winter, accompanied since February by the raucous songs of thrushes, eclectic mixes of sounds that catch the songster’s fancy. As spring draws on, other birds weave their songs into the melody: the haphazard tinkling of ashy-faced dunnocks, the bombastic twittering of wrens ensconced in undergrowth, the blackbird’s throaty warble. In areas with pine trees, the two-note see-saw of the coal tit interlocks with the goldcrest’s squeaky jangling. The spluttering contact calls of long-tailed tits ring out as the birds make their way down hedgerows, past the chaffinch’s three-tone fluttering descent. Towards the end of March, the songs of the first summer migrants, fresh from Africa and southern Europe, join the composition: the willow warbler’s steady declension, the blackcap’s noncommittal warbling whistle, and the chiffchaff repeating its own name (in case it forgets). Above it all, a series of rich stridulations accompany male skylarks as they parachute down through the sky. By singing, male birds – and it is usually the males – accomplish two goals. To other males, the song is a territorial stake, proclaiming ownership over a tract of land and the food, water, and nesting sites within it. To females, it is a job interview, advertising the songster’s fitness as a potential mate and father.
These songs carry through into April, when the gales and storms tend to ameliorate, replaced by a persistent fine drizzle. In fields and woodland edges, the downy leaves of Yorkshire-fog, a common grass, catch moisture out of the air to bedeck themselves in pearly dewdrops. Around them, other whimsically-named grasses are starting to flower: the tight bracts of meadow foxtail, the tough spears of cock’s-foot, the purple pollen of timothy. Among them, margarine-yellow droplets mark the presence of creeping and meadow buttercups, while spreading white clouds of cow-parsley, angelica, and wild carrot sprout from ungrazed field edges. In the woods, beneath the fresh leaves of birch and hazel, celandines push up hordes of shining gold flowers above a thick mat of round green leaves. While they dominate the display, bluebells spear upwards from beneath, in position to unfurl the delicate blue arcs of their flowers once the celandines are done. In cracks and crevices, walls and cliff-faces, the cheerful pink flowers of herb-Robert work their way out from carpets of lush moss, while yellow corydalis sprouts its bunches of trumpet-shaped flowers from drier spots. After months of holding its breath, the woodlands heave a sigh of relief, and life begins again.
May brings with it a host of new sights, sounds, and scents, as the woods hit the peak of their growth season. In the dawn chorus, the early summer migrants are joined by new, often rarer compatriots who are less tolerant of the cold. The sweet chattering whistle of the redstart fills old-growth woodlands, where the birds can still find tree cavities to nest in. In tangles of brambles and stands of ferns, the wood warbler drops its ‘spinning coin’ song, faster and faster until it comes to a trilling halt. The rough throaty chatter of garden warblers joins the whitethroat’s scratchy warble in hawthorn hedges, which are now bedecked in white flowers. The rich meandering whistle of the pied flycatcher contrasts against the simple scratchy ‘tsiit’ of its spotted cousin, and very occasionally, the rustic two-tone of the cuckoo’s song announces that summer has almost arrived. Most of the trees have been in leaf for weeks, if not months, but are finally joined now by the two species which dominate these northern forests: the oak pushes out bursts of lobed chartreuse leaves alongside pendants of tiny yellow flowers, while the ash, having gotten its flowering out of the way in January, focuses on producing its own lime green fronds. As the canopy closes over, cutting off the light, the forest floor flowers take a break until next spring, channelling their energies into producing seeds and restocking their own winter food supplies. Birds settle down for their first or even second brood of youngsters, counting on the glut of caterpillar prey that is sure to follow the oak and ash leaves in a matter of days. Spring progresses into summer, but even now, the threat of the coming winter is never far away.