I write this blog on May Day Bank Holiday. I think I can safely say that for Wardens, visitors and wildlife alike, May is a welcome milepost in the year outdoors.
May is the month of flowers, and also that of maximum bird song, as birds declare their territory. May sees the return of the late to arrive summer migrants; house martins, swallows and swifts being the last to arrive.
Although appearing in late April, May blossom is now widely out in the Park and the surrounding countryside. May blossom is widespread in our landscape because many of our fields are enclosed by hedgerows that are mostly composed of Hawthorn trees. The thorny nature of these trees makes for a stock proof hedge, and are otherwise known as white thorn, quickthorn, or to science as Crataegus monogyna.
May blossom has a distinctive scent, cinnamon like to some, although it is likened to the smell of death to others. The flowers are pollinated by midges and other small flies; of which there are plenty, as hawthorn supports some 300 species of insects. The preponderance of Hawthorn in the landscape means that on any journey through the countryside in May, one is treated to an abundance of white ribbons of May blossom in every view.
The ground flora in May delights us with those plants that fit their lifecycle into the part of the year where the tree canopy has not yet formed. Lydiard Park has areas of Ramsons, (Allium ursinum), often known as wild garlic. Walking in areas where they grow releases a strong smell of garlic. Ramsons have pure white flowers, which appear lit in half light, thereby attracting pollinating insects.
Also growing from a bulb and completing its life cycle before the trees reach full leaf is the ‘Pride of the Woods’ or bluebell. Lydiard Park has sizable patches of bluebells in its wooded areas; the far side of the larger lake seems most dense. The U.K. has some of the best examples of bluebell woods in the World. They have flourished in the past centuries due to the woodland management technique of coppicing. This involves the cutting down to the ground of the trees growth, to a coppice stool (stump) every 7 to 11 years, which regularly lets light down on to the woodland floor and increases the vigour of the understory. Bluebells pack their growth and flowering into the early spring slot before the canopy of the woodland forms and casts shade on the ground.
A current issue with bluebells in the U.K.is the ever-increasing presence of the invasive non-native Spanish bluebell. The native bluebell is Hyacinthoides non-scripta whilst the Spanish bluebell is Hyacinthoides Hispanica. The native has dark flowers, and one-sided, nodding flowers, with strongly recurved petals and white pollen and the strong perfume of hyacinths. Whilst H. hispanica has paler flowers produced on all sides of the upright stem, less recurved petals and blue pollen and lack the strong perfume. A common situation exist where both are in close proximity they tend to hybridise to a species known as, Hyacinthoides. × massartiana
As I write at the start of May, the bluebells are at their best, so do seek out this beautiful member of the lily family in the Park, displaying its ‘indigo light’ and broadcasting the aroma of hyacinths from a distance.
Other wild flowers that will catch the visitor’s eye this time of year include lacy white blooms (umbels) of the cow parsley. These umbellifers tend to line the edges of small roads and lanes in May. The folk name for them is, ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’.
Another ubiquitous wild flower to be seen is the common buttercup. Although its beautiful waxy yellow blooms are attractive, it has little nutritional value to stock. Additionally has a less attractive side. Its sap is an irritant and poisonous, and can cause blistering of the skin. Apparently in the past beggars used poultices of crushed buttercups to produce ulcers on their own skin, to elicit sympathy and successful begging.
May sees the wholesale return of insect life. This resource is sufficient to attract birds from South Africa to enjoy the flush of aerial food. This month saw the swifts follow the swallows north, as their shrill screaming calls grab ones attention. Looking up at the bright sky, they show as dark outlines of long sickle shaped wings, weaving and soaring and combing tasty bugs from the air.
May is the time for the emergence of Alderflies, Stoneflies and of course Mayflies. Our lake becomes a low altitude larder for the Swifts, Swallows and House Martins. One notable insect to mention is the cockchafer. This beetle is known as the ‘May bug’, or ‘doodlebug’. This is a large insect which can grow up to 46mm in length. It tends to make itself known either by its loud buzzing noise as it flies, or alarm as it crashes into lighted windows at night! Adult cockchafers feed on leaves, but particularly oak leaves.
And of course May sees the return of bees, as they enjoy the nectar of spring flowers. A notable sight in May is the muffled buzzing as bees visit the rose, pink and white apple blossom, ensuring a good crop of apples later in the year. Do look into Lydiard’s sheltered Walled Garden, to witness the bees busy at work on the many apples trees planted there.
Lydiard’s trees, following the pattern of the surrounding countryside, are all out in leaf, with the exception of the oak, beech and ash. The oak is showing brown emergent leaves, which will soon turn light green. The horse chestnuts are now at their best. This spreading tree, originally from the Balkans is festooned with white and pink pyramidal flowers, which remind me of candelabras. The leaves are a beautiful fresh green at the moment, but inevitably the recent problem of chestnut leaf miner will return later in the year to disfigure the leaves with brown patched areas. Another May delight of the tree world is the lilac. Lydiard has a number to admire this time of year.
Alongside these natural May events, I should point out on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st May at 11am, Lydiard Park hosts the Race for Life. Run by Cancer Research UK, this event funds the fight against cancer by way of public sponsorship of the runners who brave the 5K, 10K and Pretty Muddy courses.
After a productive visit to enjoy the various May delights described above, visitors may wish to enjoy well-earned refreshments at our Forest Café, or the more rustic delights of the Coach House Tea Rooms.
Mark Eborn, Lydiard Park Warden