British wildlife in May

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

European turtle dove drinking at water's edge in Spain. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

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

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Although we are restricted in going out and enjoying nature during the coronavirus pandemic, wild animals and plants are still continuing to sing, blossom and grow.


Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Singing nightingale. © David Chapman
Singing nightingale. © David Chapman

When the human world is in turmoil, we can all take comfort in the beyond-human one. Birdsong is proven to give us a natural high, and one song in particular has been written about by almost every nature writer: that of the male nightingale. Shy and dowdy he may be, but when he opens that beak, he has the power and clarity of an opera singer, and the improvisation and range of a jazz diva.

Though legendary for singing on May nights, this relative of the robin also performs in early morning and at dusk. The fact that it skulks in the shadows only adds to the sense of occasion. New undergrowth and scrub are what the species needs, ideally less than 10 years old. Sadly, heavy browsing by deer and a decline in traditional woodland management have sent numbers into freefall.

There’s also evidence from Spain that, due to drought, some nightingales there are evolving shorter wings, leading to fewer surviving the migration to and from Africa. It’s not yet known if this affects the UK population.

But as Luke Massey puts it in Red Sixty Seven, a book celebrating our 67 most vulnerable birds, “Will we really let this be the last song of the nightingale?”


Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

Red-tailed bumblebee. © Laurie Campbell
Red-tailed bumblebee. © Laurie Campbell

Two hundred years ago this month, HMS Beagle was launched. Later, the ship would famously take Charles Darwin to see exotic flora and fauna in South America, though it’s often forgotten he spent far longer watching everyday wildlife closer to home.

In Kent, the naturalist observed “humble bees” in forensic detail, becoming one of the first to notice that they patrol the same linear foraging routes over and over. Probably our most distinctive widespread species is the red-tailed, which loves clover, dandelion, daisy and thistle flowers.

White tailed bumblebee, Bombus lucorum

Orca (Orcinus orca)

Orca. © Genevieve Leaper
Orca. © Genevieve Leaper

Due to COVID-19, this is the first year since 2012 that volunteers won’t gather on clifftops in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. Usually in May they scan the sea for cetaceans – especially orcas, small numbers of which visit these waters from Iceland and Norway during the summer months.

The huge predators come to hunt grey and harbour seals (the latter have pups in midsummer, so are particularly vulnerable) and sometimes venture amazingly close to shore. Each individual orca can be recognised by the pale patch, or ‘saddle’, behind its dorsal fin, which may itself bear telltale nicks or scars.


Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus)

Holly blue butterfly. © Colin Varndell
Holly blue butterfly. © Colin Varndell

If you’re lucky, you might in a village spot a common blue, but realistically this is the only ‘blue’ likely to be encountered in the average British garden. Chris Packham called it the “daintiest darling” in his book Back Garden Nature Reserve (still in print after 19 years).

The holly blue is among the first of the year’s butterflies not to have hibernated as adults – ones on the wing now overwintered as chrysalises, which formed last autumn. Numbers peak in May, and there’s a second brood in July to August.


Hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)

Hemlock water dropwort. © David Chapman
Hemlock water dropwort. © David Chapman

This isn’t the plant with which the Greek philosopher Socrates is said to have killed himself, but it is likewise extremely poisonous. Superficially resembling cow parsley, it produces neat clusters of white flowers in summer and has lacy leaves rather like giant coriander or flat parsley. The grooved stems might remind you of celery.

Hemlock water dropwort loves to have wet feet, growing along ditches and beside muddy streams and rivers. Perhaps alarmingly, it is also abundant – but best left alone.


Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

Kittiwake. © Getty
Kittiwake. © Getty

Together with the chiffchaff and cuckoo, jackdaw and curlew, the kittiwake is a bird that calls its own name. In truth, the endlessly repeated cry sounds more like ‘kitti-waaaake’, but nevertheless is impossible to escape at many crowded seabird nesting cliffs, especially in the north and west of the UK.

Unlike other British gulls, this is a truly pelagic species that only frequents coasts during the breeding season. You won’t find it inland, except for one remarkable urban colony on the buildings and bridges of Newcastle and Gateshead.

A pair of puffins build a closer bond through billing, a courtship routine involving the quick tapping of their beaks. © Becky Bunce.

Roach (Rutilus rutilus)

Roach. © Jack Perks
Roach. © Jack Perks

With 12 native species as well as several introduced ones, the carp and minnow family is Britain’s biggest group of freshwater fish. One of their quirks (though you need to be an angler to see it) is a lack of teeth. Many of these fish breed in warm weather this month and next, so briefly become much more noticeable.

Roach spawn in shoals around reeds or other vegetation, thrashing about as males chase females. They have a chunky silver body with bright red fins.


Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia)

Female emperor moth. © Sorcha Lewis
Female emperor moth. © Sorcha Lewis

Flame shoulder, sallow kitten, powdered quaker… May’s moths write a special kind of poetry with their names. In looks, though, few can hold a candle to the emperor, Britain’s only representative of the silk moth family, Saturniidae, which in the tropics includes bird-sized giants. 

The wings of this large, spring beauty sport two pairs of ‘eye spots’ reminiscent of the roundels on old RAF aircraft. Perhaps, like those of the peacock butterfly, they startle or intimidate predators. When a male moth opens its hind wings, there is also a startling flash of bright orange.

Emperor moths are widespread and not especially scarce but, to glimpse one, your best bet is to stroll across a heath, moor or another sandy, scrubby habitat in fine spring sunshine. Male emperors fly by day – and strongly, too – so, at first, you might think you’ve spotted a butterfly. By contrast, the ‘empresses’ emerge after dark. Neither sex has mouthparts, meaning their time in this world is limited – they meet, mate, then die.

Moths are fascinating and interest in them is growing. Later this year, Butterfly Conservation publishes the first atlas of moths in Britain and Ireland, based on over 25 million records submitted by enthusiasts.


European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

European hedgehog among dry leaves. © Olena Khudiakova/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media/Getty
European hedgehog among dry leaves. © Olena Khudiakova/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media/Getty

Aristotle thought that hedgehogs mated belly to belly, with the female standing upright. It was a reasonable assumption, given the insectivores’ upper body is covered in around 5,000 spines (and, to be fair, Aristotle correctly recognised these as a form of hair).

In fact, the old joke about hedgehogs mating carefully is fairly accurate. It is preceded by long bouts of huffing and grunting, and a nose-to-tail chase that hedgehog expert Pat Morris describes as “singularly lacking in apparent affection”. Lucky garden owners can hear the performance on warm evenings from May onwards.


Yellow iris / flag iris (Iris pseudacorus)

Yellow iris. © Iain Sarjeant/Getty
Yellow iris. © Iain Sarjeant/Getty

Iris was the Ancient Greek goddess of the rainbow, tasked with carrying messages for the other gods. Though the Balkans are rich in irises, only two are native to the British Isles, of which the glorious yellow flag is the most abundant by far.

From May to August, its flowers glow in ponds, canals and anywhere marshy, the length and breadth of the country. Dense iris beds offer valuable shelter in the shallows to species such as moorhens and water voles, help control floods and act as a giant filter, improving water quality.

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European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur)

European turtle dove drinking at water's edge in Spain. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty
European turtle dove drinking at water’s edge in Spain. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

The gentle, ventriloquial ‘turr turr’ of a turtle dove, coming from deep inside a hawthorn tree or hedgerow, was until recently a classic sound of the countryside. Sadly, within a human generation, this summer migrant has almost disappeared from Britain, due largely to hunting in the Mediterranean and the loss of weedy fields.

Today, the turtle dove just about retains a toehold in south-east England and East Anglia. Its hypnotic call features in a new track of birdsong, Let Nature Sing, that celebrates nature’s dawn chorus choir.


Yellow dung fly (Scathophaga stercoraria)

Yellow dung fly in Scotland. © Iain Lawrie/Getty
Yellow dung fly in Scotland. © Iain Lawrie/Getty

With about 7,000 species in the UK, in every conceivable habitat, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to Diptera (the order’s name means ‘two wings’). To see this handsome example, simply head to a nice, fresh cowpat: you won’t have to wait long.

Virtually the entire insect is the colour of English mustard, except for its eyes and wings, which are chestnut-brown. The adults are fierce predators – just look at those mantis-like front legs – but the larvae munch dung.

Male Bombylius major from Peterborough. © Steven Falk

Sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Sedge warbler. © Laurie Campbell
Sedge warbler. © Laurie Campbell

Now’s the best time to set your alarm and get outdoors to appreciate the dawn chorus – by 6.30am, it has peaked already and is dying down. One of the jazziest performers is this streak-backed little bird, which sings its scratchy, chattering song from reeds and bushes, often in quite small wetlands beside rivers or canals.

Some say a male sedge warbler never sings the same song twice. He has “endless capacity for variation”, writes Simon Barnes in his book On the Marsh, “as if…the whole spring was one song.”


Jelly ear (Auricularis auricula-judae)

Jelly ear fungus. © Alex Hyde
Jelly ear fungus. © Alex Hyde

Some fungi produce fruiting bodies year-round, and jelly ear is one. It grows weird, rubbery mounds on elder bushes and is most visible in winter and spring, being tough enough to survive frosts. The squidgy structures have an unsettling resemblance to wrinkly old human ears.

Jelly ear is proof that, while we associate fungi with autumn, hyphae never stop. Hyphae are the mass of tangled fungal threads spreading unseen through wood, plant matter and earth in unimaginably vast numbers, harvesting nutrients for the parent organism.


Pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus)

Pygmy shrew. © Jelfer Heder/Minden/FLPA
Pygmy shrew. © Jelfer Heder/Minden/FLPA

This is easily the dinkiest British land mammal, usually no heavier than 6g. Close up, its long snout recalls a tiny tapir, albeit one with twitching whiskers and pinprick eyes. But the pygmy shrew is seldom glimpsed alive, as it spends spring and summer deep in the forest of grass stalks.

A hyperactive lifestyle burns the calories, yet the shrew has little in reserve, so must hunt more or less nonstop, consuming one-and-a-quarter times its body weight in insects and spiders every day.


Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Golden plover. © Nigel Blake
Golden plover. © Nigel Blake

In spring and early summer, northern peat bogs come alive with the plaintive cry of golden plovers. These quicksilver, arrow-winged birds fly fast – so much so, a debate in 1951 about their aerial prowess led Sir Hugh Beaver, of the famous brewing dynasty, to dream up the Guinness Book of Records.

Peatlands are a vital habitat for ‘goldies’ and other wading birds, as well as important carbon sinks. But even now, they are still damaged by peat extraction for sale to gardeners.


Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red clover. © Genevieve Leaper
Red clover. © Genevieve Leaper

‘Rolling in clover’ certainly applies to bumblebees. They can’t get enough of the nectar-packed pompoms of red and white clover, and there is a simple way to help. Join the ‘no mow’ campaign and leave part of your lawn uncut.

Clover should be quick to appear, often with daisies, buttercups and (from June) selfheal. Yet a measly 30% of participants in Gardenwatch, the UK’s biggest ever garden survey, run by Springwatch, the Open University and BTO, said they allow their lawns to grow long.

Cornflowers © Rike / Getty

Marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus)

Marsh frog. © Jason Steel
Marsh frog. © Jason Steel

Of all the exotic amphibians to have gained a toehold in Britain, the marsh frog is the most colourful, appearing Kermit-green at times. It’s about half as big again as our common frog, with a voice to match. In April and May, the males keep up an incessant squeaky chorus, inflating their huge vocal sacs.

As with every introduced amphibian, the species’ spread is closely monitored. So far, this handsome alien is restricted to Kent, East Sussex and around London.


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Main image: European turtle dove drinking at water’s edge in Spain. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty