Pools of blue on woodland floor

May's the month to visit a bluebell wood
May's the month to visit a bluebell wood

Written by Heather Elvidge

Trees have lapped up the rain, and are looking their best with bright new leaves. The last ones to leaf are oak and ash, linked in this well-known saying: “Oak before ash, sign of a splash. Ash before oak, sign of a soak.”

While trees don’t have access to the Met Office’s supercomputers, they do respond to conditions. Oaks wait for temperatures to rise before opening their leaf buds; ash trees respond to increasing daylight. Which will be first to leaf in your area?

Before their leaves appear, ashes bear clusters of strange purplish flowers. This year there’s been a good display — from a distance the trees seem to be sprouting black berries. Yet it’s impossible to forget that these magnificent trees are threatened by disease.

After the sprinkling of snowy blackthorn, it’s the cherries’ turn to bloom. Japanese cherries dazzle in towns, where their flamboyant pink ruffles are more than a match for the urban environment. Our native cherry is a woodland tree, whose elegant habit and delicate, dangling flowers have inspired many a poet.

In the woods there are pools of blue. This is the month for bluebells, with their intense violet-blue flowers and heavy, spicy scent.

Our native bluebells have many old names, including culverkeys, fairy bells, jacinth, and auld man’s bell. To enjoy their sight and scent, visit Raincliffe Woods, Scarborough; Stray Head Banks, Whitby; Bridestones Moor, Pickering; Nut Wood and Wauldby Scrogs, Cottingham.

Bluebells are a sign of ancient woodland and a protected species, so please don’t crush their leaves or pick the flowers.

Cuckoo tales

It’s good to see swallows back at last, swooping low over ponds and pasture to scoop up insects on the wing. They always return to the area where they were born, if possible to the same barn or outhouse.

Breeding is well under way for our birds, though they take care to hide the location of their nests. Grey squirrels, cats and rats will take eggs or young, but so will other birds such as crows and magpies.

Reed warblers, meadow pipits and dunnocks face a special threat — the cuckoos have returned. Female cuckoos search out the nests of those species, and lay one egg in each. The young cuckoo hatches first and disposes of the other eggs by pushing them over the side.

As the hosts are small and the cuckoo is the size of a collared dove, the foster parents face an increasing struggle to find enough food for their huge chick. But it’s not all one sided. The cuckoo’s migrant life is hazardous, and its numbers continue to decline.

Cuckoos used to be the heralds of summer. Their arrival was celebrated with cuckoo fairs, cuckoo ale and outbursts of a thirteenth-century song, “Sumer is icumen in, loude sing cuckoo”.

We know that cuckoos spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa, but in the past the bird’s sudden appearance was a mystery. People said that they turned into a hawk, hid in the faery hills or spent the winter hibernating in hollow logs.

According to tradition, the cuckoo sings while the Pleiades constellation is in the sky; that’s until Midsummer’s Day or thereabouts. And the birds won’t leave until they’ve had a meal of cherries.