Every year it catches me by surprise, just how lovely spring is, as Robert Browning so eloquently puts it in his ‘Home thoughts from abroad’. In the space of just a few weeks the woods are transformed. Whereas in March all the trees were bare and stark, suddenly half of them are greening up. Sycamore is well ahead of oak, which in turn is ahead of the ash, but there are also individual differences with some oaks more advanced than others.
In the understorey the lengthened hazel catkins were one of the few bright hopes for spring a month ago, but now the bushes are showing half-opened leaves. The pussy willow has also been and gone, but the blackthorn is providing banks of blossom with the hawthorn still to come. The mixture of green with the greys and browns of the trunks is more attractive than the uniformity of either winter bareness and deep summer’s leafiness.
At ground level new species are coming into flower almost by the day. The bluebells, celandines and primroses have been joined by wood sorel, herb paris in bud, spurge-laurel, wood-spurge and speedwells. Fern crooks are poking up through the litter along with the spore-bearing spikes of great horsetail. Soon the wild garlic will be dominating the sights and smell of the north slope of the hill. Its leaves are on sale in the Covered Market in Oxford which I had never noticed before. Another first was finding meadow saffron at its one location in Wytham. Previously I have never been quite in the right place in spring for the leaves, or in autumn for its flowers – now I know where I should look. The early butterflies are more in evidence than a few weeks ago – brimstones, orange-tips, peacocks and speckled woods – while birdsong accompanied me all the way on my recent walk.
The Woods have been closed to the public during lockdown, but there is now limited re-opening for permit holders and a good number of people were also out walking, even though it was the middle of a working day. Access to open space does you good both mentally and physically and increased use of Wytham by visitors is a sign of this. Similarly, down on the floodplain the main car-park for the north end of Port Meadow, a large area of common on the edge of Oxford has been full most times when I have gone by. Cyclists, dog-walkers, pram-pushers and joggers are all making the most of canal towpath and Thames river-path. Even on frosty mornings, a small group of brave souls have been wild swimming in the river.
Increased use can though mean more pressure on often fragile and already well-used areas. In the University Parks not all the rubbish gets into the litter bins each day; on Port Meadow, dogs run free, despite notices requiring them to be on leads during this the season for many ground-nesting birds; along the towpath more surfacing work has been done to accommodate increased traffic; and in the woods more trees along the path-sides need to be felled for safety reasons.
On the plus side increased use of the countryside can also generate more interest in and support for its conservation. The Oxford bookshops display new titles on different aspects of rural life and natural history, from stories of the past to agendas for the future. Conservation charities are regularly in the news, criticising government, planners, or industry for causing yet more damage to the environment, but also seeking support for restoration campaigns, for peatland, woodland and meadows; for bringing back beavers, pine martens and wild cats to parts of the country where they once lived.
Will any of these efforts be enough though in the face of climate change, the climate crisis or emergency as it is increasingly referred to? Too few of us (including me) are yet making big enough changes in our in our lifestyles to reduce the impacts forecast to affect the world over the coming decades. Meanwhile signals that the environment is already being affected come in the timing of the signs of spring. The oak buds are bursting earlier than they used to. We will need to pay the climate change price for earlier springs at some stage.
The signs of spring also remind me of the jobs I was going to do over the winter while it was easy to see and move through the Woods, checking which grid posts had fallen over, or marking out a long-term recording plot set up by Kitty Paviour-Smith. This last I may just get done, the rest will have to wait for next autumn when I really will start them before Christmas (as I say every year). Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy the delight and exuberance of the natural scene. A fallen oak log that I had thought completely dead turns out to have a 15 cm live stem growing up out of it; it has not given up yet. Bluebells, primroses and celandines cover the banks. It is good to be in England, now that April’s here.