Turning Year: Waiting for call of the cuckoo

Cuckoos are heading back to Britain.
Cuckoos are heading back to Britain.

The chorus of birdsong grows noisier by the day, although one voice is still missing – the call of the cuckoo, with its promise of bright, warm days.

Cuckoos were believed to be faery birds whose appearance put an end to spring’s wintry spells, so hearing their call was a cause for celebration. April has several Cuckoo Days, the dates of old fairs held to mark their arrival in different areas.

But like other migrant birds, cuckoos aren’t as common as they used to be. Their numbers have halved in the last 20 years, and the British Trust for Ornithology is trying to find out why.

For five years the BTO has been tagging cuckoos and following their migration between Britain and Africa using satellite tracking. Vigilamus, named by staff at RAF Fylingdales where he was tagged last May, is the first of the BTO’s cuckoos to arrive back in Europe. At present he’s in Spain – follow Vigilamus as he makes his way to Yorkshire at www.bto.org.

Depending on the weather, a spectacular bumblebee species will appear any time now. The red-tailed bumblebee is big, fluffy and all-over black, except for its magenta bottom.

Luckily, there’s a range of bee food at the moment – willow catkins with their golden pollen-puffs are bumblebee magnets. In woodland there are primroses, and wood anemones with their pale, delicate flowers and ferny leaves. Yellow gorse, smelling of coconut, blazes on roadsides and clifftops.

Dog violets are in flower too. Close to the ground and often hidden among grass, they startle with a sudden glimpse of purple. The dog violet is so called because it has no scent, unlike its cousin viola odorata, the sweet violet.

Also about is the hedgehog, one of the few British mammals to hibernate. It leaves its snug winter nest to spend the nights foraging for beetles, earthworms and small slugs, although it may return there for a while if there’s a very cold spell.

In spring and summer the hedgehog makes day nests of grass and leaves, so if you’re going to be using a strimmer, especially near hedge bottoms or heaps of dead vegetation, please check for napping hogs before you begin.

St George

This Saturday is St George’s Day – you know, England’s patron saint. A Christian in the Roman army, he was martyred in Palestine in the year 303.

There must have been something about George, because 200 years later churches in Jerusalem and Antioch were dedicated to him. Icons portrayed him as a powerful defender against evil, with more than a hint of St Michael.

Richard I, the Lionheart, discovered the saint’s cult during the first Crusade in 1089. By 1530, there were St George’s Day processions in England’s major towns. But we lost our national day in the Reformation, when the veneration of saints was condemned.

There have been attempts at revival; one begun in the late 1800s gained ground into the 1930s. St George’s supporters came to the fore again in the 1990s, when there were fears about devolution and being drawn into a federal Europe.

Now, having rejected the possibility of a disUnited Kingdom, our relationship with the European Union is a hot topic once again. No sign of the dragon-slayer this time, though.