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.
Find out more about rabbits and hares:
Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)
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.
Find out more about spring flowers:
Common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)
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 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 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
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.
Find out more about trees in the UK:
Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
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.