Bluebells

Better late than never, the bluebells have finally reached their peak at Alvecote Wood.  Every spring, for a fleeting moment, there is a little catch in the throat and flutter in the chest as these beautiful little flowers are glimpsed among the trees.  Elegantly curved, softly perfumed, they carpet the floor, providing a beautiful counterpoint to the emerging leaves with their fresh lime-green colour.  To me, they are the quintessence of spring.
Bluebells are part of the very-important ground layer in a woodland.  There are the canopy trees, then the shrub layer, then the ground flora.  Emerging early, to capture the light before the canopy trees block it out, they are a vital part of the woodland ecosystem, providing pollen for early pollinators including bees and butterflies.

Bluebells are one of the reasons we need to manage our woodlands.  Clearing excessive bramble and thinning the canopy when it gets too dense have many beneficial effects, the most important being to let in light and warmth to the woodland floor.  Bluebells respond well to this, but so do lots of other things – we have lesser celandine, bugle, greater stitchwort, primrose, violets and wood sage at this time of year, and later come the foxgloves and various types of willow-herb, as well as the wild raspberries. If we are letting in enough light for the bluebells to thrive, then other things thrive too.

In this short sward we also see natural regeneration – little seedlings of oak, ash, hawthorn and silver birch start to come through.  This is the future of the woodland.

We figure that if we are managing the woodland well, then the bluebells are an indicator that we are doing our job.  Britain is surprisingly important for bluebells, having about half of all the bluebells in the world.  They may be common for us, but they are rare elsewhere, and we need to look after them.
As far as we can tell, all the bluebells in Alvecote Wood are the native English bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta.  Unfortunately, these bluebells are becoming progressively more rare, coming under pressure from the Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica.  The problem is not only that this escape from gardens and colonises natural habitats, but also that it hybridises with the native bluebell, forming a hybrid Hyacinthoides x massartiana.  Hybrids are usually very vigorous, and this is no exception, resulting in more rapid growth and greater spread than both of the parent species.

How can we tell them apart?  Well, the native bluebell has a number of key characteristics:

  • Top is gently curved rather than straight upstanding – the Spanish and hybrids tend to be straight
  • The flower is long and slim with recurved petals at the end – the Spanish and hybrids are wider and the petals do not curve back to the same extent
  • The pollen on the stamens is white or cream coloured – Spanish and hybrids have blue or greeny-blue pollen
  • British bluebells are usually blue – they can rarely be white or pink, but if there are a lot of varied colours in a carpet of bluebells, this suggests hybridisation.

You can help track the spread of Spanish and hybrid bluebells in Britain through the Natural History Museum survey scheme.  Their web site is very helpful and gives lots of information about how to identify the bluebell types.
Another passion of mine is trying to capture the bluebells in photographs.  It is easy to take photos of bluebells, but harder to capture the “essence of bluebell”, by which I mean that emotional response you get when looking at a carpet of these beautiful little flowers.  My general approach to this is:

  • Get down low – get in among the bluebells and try and capture the feeling of being a creature living in the bluebell carpet
  • Focus on one or a few bluebells – don’t go for wide depth of field, go narrow, and let the rest of the bluebells merge into a blur of blueness
  • Try and get other colours into the picture, particularly that lovely lime green of spring
  • Make the most of the dappled light on the woodland floor

This is easier said than done when the floor is covered also in nettles and brambles, and you are allergic to Hyacinths (bluebells are just wild hyacinths, really, and give me horrendous hay fever).  But the rewards are there.  If you can capture the essence of bluebell on your camera, you have the most wonderful reminder of spring the year through, and particularly during those bleak winter months.  Bluebells are special plants for so many reasons.  Get out there and enjoy them while they are at their best.  They are a gift from spring to us, and one we simply can’t miss!

True wealth

What is wealth?  GDP?  Per Capita GDP?  GDP growth?  Balance of trade?  A particular income?  A particular lifestyle?  Bling?  We are conditioned to think of wealth in terms of economic wealth, the stuff we own.  Having stuff is nice.  It makes life easier.

However, there is another kind of wealth – and it is something we can experience for free, any day of the week, almost everywhere.  Nature is incredibly rich in beauty and diversity.  Some of my most amazing experiences have come in natural places.

So it was that I was walking around our woods yesterday.  In the space of about 90 minutes, I was privileged to see and photograph a nuthatch feeding her chicks, a kestrel with prey being chided by a blackbird, a brimstone butterfly exploring the new buckthorn bushes we planted this winter, and an unbelievably cute pair of tawny owl chicks dozing in the summer sunshine.  Then there were the things I heard and didn’t manage to photograph – the chatter of the nesting blue tits and great tits, the jackdaws, the blackcaps and their lovely scratchy song, the chiffchaffs, the great spotted and green woodpeckers, the nuthatches and treecreepers, the angry wrens, the stealth voles, and rabbits, and muntjac deer, a glimpse of the fox.  Then there are the things I didn’t see, or pay much attention to, but upon which all of these other species depend – the beetles, bugs, flies, larvae, other insects, lichens and moss, leaf litter, grasses and sedges, reeds and rushes, bark and logs, the fungi and flowers, including our beautiful bluebells, coming to their best right now.

In our tiny little patch of land, just 20 acres, there was so much wealth it was brimming over – so much I couldn’t even see it all, or take it in.  And that is just 20 acres, on just one day, in just one place.

Even in the town, in our little garden, we have nesting sparrows stripping the pampas grass for their nests, busy blue tits taking bugs from the crab apple tree, in which we also have woodpigeon making a rather poor attempt at nesting.  I see collared doves, long tailed tits, greenfinch, goldfinch, mallard, herons, buzzards…and that is just in the garden, and just the birds.  There is a lot of other stuff too.

A recent visit to the woods by a beetle and bug expert in foul weather revealed nearly 40 species of beetle and bug.  FORTY species – and most of them I had never seen.  In better weather, on another day, there may well be many more.

All around us are amazing things, in amazing places, one of which is our lovely ancient woodland. What is sad is that so few people now get the chance to experience a truly rich habitat like this.  Woodland is destroyed, trees chopped down, and although planting new trees can be good, and in time will produce habitats for many creatures, it can never reproduce the wealth that has been developed over hundreds, or thousands of years, in these special places.

The Transport Secretary recently suggested that ancient woodlands could be dug up and moved to make way for HS2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-17867138 – a statement that betrays a lack of understanding of the difference between a truly rich, wealthy habitat, and an also-ran.  We need a lot more also-ran habitats, a lot more woodlands, heathlands, grasslands, hedgerows and new ponds – but we must preserve the true gems that we also possess.  This doesn’t mean that they should be monuments, devoid of human activity or life.  Indeed, human activity has shaped these habitats, and sustainable management of these woods by coppicing is instrumental in providing a truly rich habitat.  But it does mean that they should not be destroyed.

Just spend a day in one of these rich places with somebody who knows what to look for, and you will be astounded at what is there, right on our doorsteps, completely for free.  Perhaps that is the problem – this wealth is not monetary wealth, and we don’t usually have to pay to enjoy it.  So we don’t value it in the same way as we value our stuff.  Until, eventually, it isn’t there any more.  By which time we have become conditioned to an impoverished existence, devoid of the wealth the nature has to offer.  How very sad that would be.  Nature is treasure of the highest order.  It is true wealth and upon it all other types of wealth depend.  I hope we learn this before it is all gone.