World class British bluebells reach their peak
Throughout the woods of the Yorkshire Dales the blue haze at ground level indicates that the bluebells are at their peak. Few people realise that Britain's bluebells are world-renowned and given special protection in European conservation laws. There is simply no-where better in the world to see the remarkable blue carpet produced by this small member of the lilly family.
Due to the poor weather in April and early May the peak bluebell week this year has been delayed by about a fortnight, so there is still time to get out and find some for yourself. Many other woodland plants are also peaking at the moment too, so a woodland walk is currently hard to beat.
It is a plant native to the lands fringing the Atlantic and was unknown to the Greek and Roman botanists of the Mediterranean. Early British botanists called the plant 'crowtoes' and used the bulbs to make a form of glue. The bulbs also contain starch and were used to stiffen the ruffs of Elizabethan gents.
Nowadays, of course, digging up the bulbs of bluebells (as with all our native plants) is illegal. Scientists have also discovered that trampling by people of the leaves of the plant is a serious risk to their survival, as the bluebell dies back after its leaves are crushed owing to lack of food. Eager bluebell hunters would be well advised to stay on woodland tracks to admire the show.
The best place to see bluebells during the current foot-and-mouth restrictions is probably Strid Woods near Bolton Abbey, where the beech and oak woodlands have been partly opened to visitors. These woods are a Site of Special Scientific Interest and have much to enthrall the naturalist in addition to the bluebells. Many other types of woodland flower grow on the soils of the Wharfe valley in this area and the woods are an excellent place to see birds.
Three special upland songbirds nest in Strid woods: wood warbler, redstart and pied flycatcher. All are sparrow-sized summer migrants from Africa and usually arrive by the middle of May. They find the insect-rich vegetation and comparatively mild valley climate of the area irresistible.
The lemon yellow and white of the wood warbler can be hard to spot as it forages through tall beech trees but this species' call - a harsh trill preceded by a series of fluty whistles - is characteristic. Unusually for a warbler it often nests on the ground in thick vegetation.
The beautiful colours and more conspicuous behaviour of the redstart make a sighting of this species more likely. The 'start' is another name for the tail and is a striking red and constantly flicked as if to show off the colours. The male is more brightly coloured than the female, with grey on the upper parts and distinctive white forehead streak.
The pied flycatcher has benefited greatly from the nest-boxes which have been put out in the woodlands across the Dales, but it is still a scarce species, favouring undisturbed woodlands. At Strid woods there are several pairs in residence and patient study of the numerous nest boxes placed in trees in this area in May and June will usually reveal a pair. After the young have hatched the bird becomes a lot harder to find.
May is a superb month to be out in the countryside. The vegetation is lush and fresh, plants blooming, butterflies on the wing and the air alive with bird song. Look out also for newly-emerged young birds. If you find a chick that appears to have been abandoned resist the temptation to 'rescue' it as its parents are probably close by. The cute pheasant chick which I photographed in Wharfedale, and seemed all alone, was simply less experienced at hiding than its mother which emerged noisily from nearby thick vegetation as we approached its fluffy offspring.
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