Monday, 17 April 2017

Spring the Sweet Spring 16th April 2017

At this time of year for six or so weeks the countryside undergoes a transformation both physical and spiritual. A gradual, almost imperceptible increase in the pace of life gathers momentum and is manifested in the day by day transformation of the countryside from the  greys and browns of Winter into the burgeoning greens and yellows of Spring. Plants that have lain dormant and hidden suddenly emerge from the brown earth and colour it with their leaves and flowers whilst the land begins to welcome summer migrant birds, arriving in their millions, unseen and unheralded, to swell the numbers of our native species, themselves becoming increasingly colourful and vocal as simultaneously the last of the winter migrants depart northwards.

The rhythm of life in the natural world quickens on a rising tide of sap and testosterone to fulfil the one universal purpose, that of reproduction. It is impossible on a sunny Spring day not to feel this energy pulsing through the land and invading it with riotous colour and growth. 

For me there are two signals that herald the arrival of Spring, more than the Cuckoo or Swallow, more than the Primrose or Bluebell. One is a flower, the Cowslip and the other a bird, the Yellow Wagtail. Both are entirely subjective, others will have their particular favourites but in their own unique ways these two epitomise to me all that is still beautiful and wonderful at this time of year.

I live in the Cotswolds and am fortunate to be surrounded by countryside that despite the ravages of intensive farming still manages to harbour areas of land, not cultivated or drenched in herbicide where Cowslips can prosper. Drive down any rural lane around here and you are reasonably certain to find Cowslips growing on the wide grass verges. Sometimes it is just a single plant and on others great swathes of them, seen from a distance they spread out like scrambled egg on a bed of green.

The crenellated yellow flowers, each at the end of a single pale green trumpet, cluster in a closeted huddle of yellow and pale green at the top of a thin but sturdy stalk, the flowers usually all facing the same way, nodding gently in  the wind. Culverkeys was an old vernacular name based on the jiggling yellow flowers. Look closely and you can see tiny orange spots at the base of the petals and which Shakespeare thought were the source of the flowers faint dill-like scent.

When I used to live in a part of Surrey that was hanging on, just, to some vestige of rural pretension as suburbanisation slowly subsumed it, Cowslips were already a very rare plant there, an echo of a rural idyll that may have been more down to my fanciful imagination than reality. I can still recall finding one near a busy road that had sprung up from a random seed and transplanting it to safety in a secluded, untouched corner to save it from an inevitable fate of either being picked or terminated by the heedless onslaught of a council lawnmower or weed killing spray. 

The cowslip's rich cultural history would suggest it was once as abundant and accessible as the buttercup and it touched people's lives in many ways but it has declined dramatically since the 1950's and it is not just me that mourns its ill fortune. The decline is due to the advance of modern farming methods and the widespread use of herbicides which until the 1980's included wayside verges such as exist here in the Cotswolds. Since the 1990's a more benign attitude has become apparent towards our native flora and the cowslip is now making a comeback to unsprayed roadside verges, uncut churchyards and on downland no longer intensively grazed by sheep. An abiding memory is of when we had moved from Surrey to Sussex and my wife was overdue with our daughter and to induce her going into labour we went for a walk up a steep slope of the South Downs to Ditchling Beacon and I remember the cowslips from that evening as we slowly ascended the slope. It worked and our daughter was born later that night.

Now, twenty five years later Cowslips grow on my lawn in profusion and their bright yellow heads greet me each morning as I look out of the window. So I welcome the return each year of the Cowslips and the personal memories and pleasure they bring together with the cultural variety and history associated with them.

Each year at this time I also look for the Yellow Wagtails at Farmoor Reservoir and each year, give or take a day or so, I am rewarded as the exotically bright yellow males join the resident Pied Wagtails and are to be found resting and feeding on the sloping grass bank above the Thames Waterworks that forms one side of the smaller reservoir at Farmoor. They stand on the bank amongst the small white, blushed pink daisy heads and golden yellow Dandelion flowers and often it is hard to discern the wagtails from the Dandelions, both being a similar bright yellow.

The delicate grace manifested by these migrants is all too apparent when the birds move and reveal their presence as they dart through the grass and flowers after insects. The yellow plumage, always intense, varies amongst individual males and can be deep buttercup or a paler egg yolk yellow on head and body. Even the olive green on their upperparts is permeated with a lemon blush and the bird's pleasing ensemble is completed by a dapper black tail, legs and bill.

All wagtails possess irrepressibly cheery personalities and none more so than the Yellow Wagtails. Their single note call seems to be as an exclamation of joy and optimism at having made it from their winter quarters to sit in the sun on the grass bank and chase flies.

Sadly their numbers at Farmoor are less and less each year but as long as one or two make it back then I refuse to be downhearted.

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