We hope that it provides some comfort that whilst we spend our time inside the outside world is alive with the signs of spring… So much so that many people have noted that our natural places seem especially abuzz this year! This could be due to our absence, or simply a bias in observations as people spend more time in their gardens, pausing to enjoy the wildlife around them… either way it’s a lovely thing.

Heath Milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia).

In April, heathland is alive with activity as warm spring weather triggers all manner of natural changes. The bright yellow flowers of European gorse (Ulex europaeus), which blooms in January, are a familiar sight to those who visit our heaths. With spring, other heathland flowers will start to bloom, such as the beautifully delicate Heath Milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia).

Since late February, early emerging butterflies, such as red admirals, commas and brimstones have been spotted going about their business on our heaths. With spring we will start to see some of the other heathland species. The silver-studded blue butterfly is a heathland specialist with an unusual lifecycle. The fully formed caterpillar of the species hatched from its egg during March and is now being closely attended by black ants which feed on sugary secretions from glands on its body – the caterpillar receiving protection from predators in return for this gift!

Green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris)

The warm weather is also enjoyed by other heathland invertebrates. The adults of the green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris) are sun lovers. As average temperatures rise they will become active, patrolling sandy patches of the heath to look for their prey, other invertebrates.

This is of course a very busy time of year for birds too, as many species are now mating and nesting. As traffic on the roads has largely vanished, take the opportunity to listen out for the symphony of song during the breeding season as you take your daily exercise. On the heath the Dartford warbler and stone chat perch on conspicuous gorse branches singing to guard their territories.

Dartford warbler (Sylvia undata)  Adder (Vipera berus)

The onset of warmer weather encourages our reptiles to emerge from hibernation. The adder is the first of our snakes to appear, with some emerging from their hibernation sites (known as hibernacula) over two months ago! Male adders will soon start ‘dancing’, which is actually a wrestling match for dominance in which they intertwine and try to push each other to the ground. Grass snakes typically come out of hibernation in late March or April, seek a mate, and lay their eggs in rotting vegetation in June or July.

Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca)

Smooth snakes are the last of our British snake species to emerge from hibernation. This happens from April and into May and, in the last week, we have had people on their daily walks spotting smooth snakes basking. Due to the secretive nature of the species, we know little about its preferences for hibernacula – something we hope to better understand during our four-year Snakes in the Heather project. We can only take action to conserve smooth snakes when we have a good understanding of their ecology and behaviour.

Lowland heaths are an extraordinary habitat with a fascinating annual calendar. We at ARC are more determined and excited than ever to get back out there and deliver our Snakes in the Heather project in the community to safeguard the future of the smooth snake and their heathland home.  Meantime, we hope you have been able to enjoy the signs of spring, either from your home, or during daily exercise, and we look forward to seeing you out and about when it is safe to do so.