It wasn’t a rod, pole or perch, for those who are old enough to remember such measurements, it was a redpoll busily pecking away at the spilt crumbs of food below the bird-table, his red topknot, ablaze with bright crimson. I cannot recall having had such a visitor before although I have seen them in the vicinity on previous occasions. He or she – the two are alike – added its presence to the large population of similarly sized siskins, the red-faced goldfinches, the chaffinches, greenfinches (there were four here the other day feeding on the dandelion seeds), the dunnocks and the clamorous house sparrows!
A new bird for my list! There is also new life in the nearby plantations. Several times have I seen the bobbing white posteriors of roe does bounding away from me and quickly disappearing into the darkness of the massed ranks of conifers where their newly dropped kids lie. Perhaps these new ‘Bambis’ lie cosseted in highly aromatic carpets of wild hyacinths – bluebells – for this year they are absolutely glorious. Without doubt, they are my favourite wild flowers, well remembered from childhood adventures in the woods in the spring. Here the woods are full of their charming aroma.
Whilst red deer, the Monarchs of the Glens, are the deer most people associate with Highland Scotland, roe deer are the more familiar deer to be seen in the Lowlands albeit that there are plenty of them in the Highland forests too. Indeed, there was concern for roe when their numbers plummeted during the nineteenth century at a time when our woodlands were being stripped at an alarming rate in order to fuel the expansion of ship-building, industry, railways and coal mining. Whilst red deer managed very successfully to adapt their lifestyles from woodland dwellers to residents of open moorland, roe were unable to make that transition.
Ironically, in recent years we have seen red deer returning to low ground and lowland forests and woods. Indeed, such has been their impact on lowland farmland, that locally there is a concerted effort to cull their numbers. Roe deer meanwhile, as new forests have sprung up to replace those felled during those destructive years, have also prospered and their numbers are in some places approaching pest proportions so they too are the subject of continual culling. Indeed, the ‘gentle roe’ as it is often called, can these days be seen even in our towns and cities where they often live their lives out among the silent tombstones of our larger cemeteries.
However, the merry month of May brings a new generation of roe into the world. At the same time, roebucks, rather than making up those nice cuddly family images so much the creation of Walt Disney, take no interest in the arrival of their progeny and instead are preparing themselves for battle. In May, the sap is beginning to rise as territorial integrity is sought and other roebuck become the avowed enemies. In such circumstances, the roe is far from gentle! Between now and August when mating occurs, roebuck certainly have fire in their bellies!
And as the roebuck’s dander is rising, that new generation of their kind is coming into the world, dutifully produced single–handedly and nurtured by the attentive does. The woodland origins of red deer are clearly betrayed by the white spots that cover the fawns’ bodies, a real indicator of that genesis. Roe kids too are similarly covered in white spots which, in that woodland setting where the sun dapples the ground, provide them with excellent camouflage. One other precaution used by roe is to ensure that their kids – usually twins but occasionally triplets – are located in different parts of woods.
There those tiny kids will remain for the first two weeks of their lives, their instinct, if discovered, to freeze rather than scamper away. After those first two weeks they will at last meet up with their siblings and begin to follow their mother. But, as this early phase of their lives is evolving, you may hear a medley of gruff barking emanating from nearby woods. This barking is the sound of competing bucks, arguing over those territorial rights. I well remember hearing such sounds from a nearby forest. Before long I was able to witness the panic-stricken passage of a buck which had definitely come second in such a competition. He cleared fences with ease and was clearly not waiting to see if his conqueror was pursuing him as he put as much distance between him and the triumphant rival as he could!
This month of May is very much a month of new life. The trees are almost all bursting with new green life save for the ash trees, many of which wait until June to become fully clothed with leaves. It is during this month that badger cubs begin for the first time to savour the great outdoors following a sojourn deep in the safety of their underground setts.
I well remember the moment when I witnessed the first timid ventures by the cubs above ground whose parents I had watched avidly over the course of several months. Their first adventure was conducted very nervously one May evening but within a week they were boldly playing a ‘King of the Castle’ game, each of the three of them, a young boar and his two young sow siblings, trying noisily to outdo one another. All such fun and mock fighting is part of the experience of growing up and learning about life.
On that occasion I also remember the sweet scent of bluebells, the cautious passage of a roe doe as she visited her youngsters one by one to suckle and clean them. There was the quizzical tawny owl, which always pitched up on a nearby tree, its large eyes peering at me trying to understand what was this curious, booted figure doing in a tree! There was too that medley of woodland bird song, the rich tones of a garden warbler, the downward spiralling tune of a willow warbler and the endless ebbing and flowing reeling of a grasshopper warbler.
May is a time of newly emerging flowers, badger cubs finding their way into the great outdoors, the silent, stealthy movement of roe does coming and going to tend to their kids, yet sometimes an explosive time when roebucks clashed over territories. And, new chicks are even now emerging from their eggs; the cuckoo’s comic call rings a death knell to some but to the poets at least, this is a very vocal harbinger of spring. And my local cock robin clearly has a mate incubating eggs nearby. He diligently picks away at the fallen sunflower hearts where I saw the redpoll feeding, to deliver them to his sitting mate.
The tide is running, hedgerows are beginning to brim with blossom, a new cycle of life is emerging. All seems well enough for now, despite the gloom produced by the latest prognostications of those who foretell tragedies that are to come because of climate change. Enjoy it for what it is, the year’s merriest month!