British wildlife in April

Enjoy spring nature and wildlife across the UK and Ireland with our guide to what different species are up to now.

Young European rabbit. © Andy Rouse/Nature Picture Library/Getty

Find out what different species are up to around the UK during April in our guide, including wildlife in your garden and further afield.

Common toad (Bufo bufo)

Common toads mating in spring. © Travel Ink/Getty
Common toads mating in spring. © Travel Ink/Getty

Never has the phrase ‘hanging on for dear life’ been more apt. This photograph of a male toad gripping his partner with all his might speaks volumes about the biological imperative to pass on your genes.

So powerful is the urge driving this pumped- up amphibian, he might have grabbed any suitable object in range, were no female available. Male toads have been known to seize other male toads, frogs, small fish, tennis balls floating in the water, even the hands of volunteers running toad crossings on busy roads. Sometimes several males will all pile on, forming waddling scrums.

The no-nonsense mating position is known as amplexus, from the Latin for ‘embrace’, and is used by toads and frogs worldwide. In many species, the mature male has special adaptations to strengthen his grip; the male common toad, for instance, has a spiny ‘nuptial pad’ on each thumb. This looks like a dark extension to the three inner fingers, and can be used to determine a toad’s sex.

The other clue, perhaps more obvious, is size – female toads are much bigger, especially in spring when their bellies bulge with unfertilised eggs.

After mating, threads of fertilised toadspawn are left like dark necklaces among the water weed.

Natterjack toad, showing the yellow line down its back. © Chris Dresh

Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

Male common cuckoo in the Peak District. © David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty
Male common cuckoo in the Peak District. © David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

April 2020 sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wordsworth, whose celebrated ode to the cuckoo includes this verse: “While I am lying on the grass/Thy twofold shout I hear/From hill to hill it seems to pass/At once far off, and near.”

What the nature poet captures so beautifully is the species’ mercurial nature, as if the male bird is taunting us as he moves between different song-posts.

Cuckoos are now scarce in Britain: most that are left breed in large wetlands, or in the uplands of Wales and Scotland.

Angle shades moth (Phlogophora meticulosa)

Angle shades moth. © Nathan Jones
Angle shades moth. © Nathan Jones

One of our most distinctive garden moths, this pink-green- and-brown beauty mimics dead leaves, with curled wingtips that heighten the illusion of shrivelled foliage.

Its long flight season traditionally starts in late April or May. But the Atlas of Britain and Ireland’s Larger Moths – the recently published ‘moth bible’ based on over 25 million records – shows that, like many species with two broods per year, the first generation of adults is emerging ever earlier. This is probably a response to climate change.


Water vole (Arvicola amphibius)

Water vole. © Kate Long
Water vole. © Kate Long

Searching for ‘Ratty’ is an ideal opportunity to enjoy some mindfulness in nature. That’s because your best bet is to sit down by still or slow- moving water in a tranquil wetland… and wait.

Voles like a steep bank for burrowing, though it doesn’t have to be very high, and each territory is quite small – sometimes as little as 25–50m of bankside.

Within this, they have favourite picnic spots, where they sit munching sedges, water crowfoot, horsetail and other lush greenery. Few water voles survive outside conservation areas, so head to a wetland reserve or canal where they’re known to be active.

Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula)

Early purple orchids in the Peak District. © Eleanor Scriven/Getty
Early purple orchids in the Peak District. © Eleanor Scriven/Getty

This regal wildflower does exactly what it says on the tin, and not only is it one of the first orchids to appear in spring, it’s also among the most abundant members of its famous family. You’re most likely to see it in sunny places in woods, but it also grows beside roads and on grassy hillsides, flowering until June.

Its leaves have purplish-brown blotches, as if splashed with paint, though this isn’t unique – the leaves of the common spotted orchid look similar.

Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

“It is always exciting to see even a common migrant, like a willow warbler, being a migrant,” writes nature writer Tim Dee in new book Greenery. “Birds out of place get birders going.”

Willow warblers are, above all, woodland birds. They’re particularly fond of birch-covered hillsides, but on spring migration turn up tired and hungry in odd locations.

In April, you might hear their glorious, cascading song anywhere from coasts to gardens. Up to 1,000 million of these sprites head to Europe from Africa each spring.

Ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria)

An ashy mining bee, near the BBC Wildlife office. © Megan Shersby
An ashy mining bee, near the BBC Wildlife office. © Megan Shersby

Scuffed-up ground is surprisingly important for wildlife, including great British rarities such as sand lizards, oil beetles, field crickets and stone curlews. It’s worth paying attention to those bare patches of ‘dirt’ in your lawn or neighbourhood park.

One species you might meet here is the ashy mining bee – the snow leopard of bees. Females dig nest burrows close together, and their pockmarked ‘bee cities’ occupy the same spots each year – there’s one in some scruffy roadside grass near the BBC Wildlife office.

The ashy mining bee nesting area near the BBC Wildlife offices. © Megan Shersby
The ashy mining bee nesting area near the BBC Wildlife office. © Megan Shersby
Add the tubes. © Sarah Cuttle

European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

Young European rabbit. © Andy Rouse/Nature Picture Library/Getty
Young European rabbit. © Andy Rouse/Nature Picture Library/Getty

Anyone who grew up with the tales of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny is likely to have a sneaking admiration for their naughtiness and joie de vivre. But Beatrix Potter’s stories have a darker side, too – some of the characters’ relatives ended up in pies.

For wild rabbits in Britain, this is closer to the reality: the odds are that their life will be nasty, brutish and short. Studies have shown that 70–95% of rabbits perish in their first few months. Kits born early, during the first flush of spring, have the best chance of seeing out the year.

Young rabbits face danger in all directions, including from buzzards in the air, and from foxes, polecats, badgers, stoats and even tiny weasels on the ground. Currently, there is also the double whammy of myxomatosis and haemorrhagic disease.

Together with agricultural intensification, this has led to a decline in rabbit numbers of between a half and two-thirds since the 1990s. This matters because the close-cropped sward and bare areas of scuffed earth maintained by these ‘lawnmowers’ is an important habitat for scarce species, such as stone curlews, woodlarks, sand lizards and Adonis and large blue butterflies.

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

Wood anemones. © Alex Hyde
Wood anemones. © Alex Hyde

Sometimes a flower is more than just a flower. The wood anemone, which brings to mind a beautiful white buttercup (it belongs to the same family), can tell us a lot about the land. In early spring, before trees are in full leaf and block out the light, it blooms in sunny woodlands throughout Britain and Ireland. But not just any woodland. If you see an impressive display of anemones carpeting a clearing like a constellation of blinking stars, the chances are you’re in an ancient wood, at least 400 years old.

Wood anemones also grow out in the open on banks and verges, or at the edges of fields: here too, they may serve as historical clues. Their presence in an apparently odd location often points to a vanished wood, long since cleared, as if the land has a memory in leaf and petal form. Countryside historians such as the late Oliver Rackham refer to these flowers as “woodland ghosts”.

Anemones spread exceptionally slowly, by means of swollen roots called rhizomes, which creep outwards like fat fingers through the rich woodland soil. This is why they are seemingly so reluctant to colonise new ground. Having said that, they’re popular with gardeners, too – you can’t always be sure that someone hasn’t planted them.

Common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Common sandpiper in Scotland. © David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty
Common sandpiper in Scotland. © David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

Some of our British common sandpipers winter here; where the rest migrate to used to be a puzzle. Now geolocator tags, fitted to Scottish breeders, have shown that they head to the mangroves and mudflats of West Africa.

This month they’re back, and will turn up almost anywhere, including canals, reservoirs and park lakes. Usually a three-note whistle grabs your attention first but their tail- pumping and flickering flight low over the water are also diagnostic. Within a couple of weeks, they’ll have moved to the pebbly upland rivers where they nest.

Black oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus)

A female black oil beetle in Dorset. © FLPA/Bob Gibbons/Getty
A female black oil beetle in Dorset. © FLPA/Bob Gibbons/Getty

A nasty surprise awaits any predator that attacks one of these portly beetles. They may be sluggish, but they are quick to discharge cantharidin – an oily irritant that is the hallmark of the world’s large blister beetle family.

In spring it’s the females you will meet, crawling over rough flowery grassland in search of suitable burrows to lay their eggs in. Britain’s black oil beetles are scarce nowadays, so report any you see, especially outside their south-west stronghold.

Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia)

Purple saxifrage. © Gus Routledge
Purple saxifrage. © Gus Routledge

Purple saxifrage will be blooming in several of the most mountainous National Parks, including the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia, Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Cairngorms, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

It clings to high cliffs and rocky outcrops, hugging the ground to escape the wind and soak up weak spring sunshine. April’s glorious mats of pinkish-purple flowers are frost- resistant and sometimes appear before the last snow has even melted.

Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior)

Newly emerged ash leaves. © Alex Hyde/Nature Picture Library/Getty
Newly emerged ash leaves. © Alex Hyde/Nature Picture Library/Getty

Country lore dictates that if ash leafs before oak, we’re due for a summer soak, and conversely that if oak beats ash, we’ll get merely a splash.

Analysing 17 years’ worth of data submitted to the Nature’s Calendar survey, Kate Lewthwaite of the Woodland Trust says that currently the latter is the rule. “On the whole, oak budburst tends to happen before ash budburst,” she says.

“Oak is five days ahead of ash on average, though ash seems to have sped ahead on a few occasions.” Why not see for yourself, and share your results with the survey.

Ash tree bark

Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

Fulmar on nest. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty
Fulmar on nest. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

On dramatic sea cliffs, pairs of fulmars are busy displaying to renew their long-term pair bond – divorces are almost unheard of. They also expend much energy cleaning out their nest ledges and hollows, and bickering with neighbouring pairs.

So much so that, in April, the exhausted female fulmars all desert the colony and head to sea to feed for up to 20 days. The mass exodus enables them to lay down enough fat to form their single large eggs, laid in May.

Serotine bat (Eptesicus serotinus)

Moths and midges beware: after five or six months of hibernation, hungry bats are now out in force. Some species, especially pipistrelles, might already have ventured outside their roosts in mild winter weather, but April is traditionally when Britain’s bats become active.

The serotine is one of our largest bats, and a specialist beetle-hunter. It is found in southern England, along mature hedgerows and woodland edges, and beside water. At twilight, you might notice its distinctive slow flight but, to clinch the identification, you really need a bat detector.