Blean Woods NNR Mid-May to mid-June 2017

If you have delicate plants or perhaps a fruit tree in your garden, you will be only too aware of the late April air frosts that killed apple blossom, leaving some growers whose orchards are in frost hollows resigned to the fact that there would be no apple harvest for them this autumn. What will be less obvious to most people is that the damage extended into our woodlands and other semi- natural habitats. In Blean Woods young sweet chestnut coppice growing in more exposed areas suffered the loss of all their newly-emerged tender leaves to these frosts. Within days the tiny leaves, that had only just begun to expand, were hanging from the twigs like frizzled brown mutations. The trees were not dead, however, merely regrouping, and diverting resources into generating new leaf buds, so that within two or three weeks fresh greenery was forcing its way between the dead leaves, and when they reach full size it will be as though nothing untoward had happened. However, the tree’s growing season will have been shortened by those leafless weeks when it would, in a normal year, have been photosynthesising and, if these late frosts were to occur every year, susceptible trees like chestnut would be weakened and perhaps eventually killed. Alright, you might say, but the chestnut is an introduced tree from the eastern Mediterranean, where late frosts are more of a rarity, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that they aren’t adapted to cope with extreme weather. Bracken, though, is a bona fide native and it, too, is very sensitive to frosts at the critical period when the fiddle-head fronds are unfurling, so it was another plant to suffer this April, with replacement fronds pushing up through the ground in mid-May. The most severe frost I can recall was many years ago, when large oak trees lost all their young leaves up to a height of 20-30 feet, ending up with a remarkably level “tide mark”, below which all the leaves were crisped, and above which normal spring foliage continued to develop.

New leaves developing to replace those killed by frost

New leaves developing to replace those killed by frost

A surprise for me in the early morning of 27 th May was hearing a reed warbler singing from young coppice beside a ride. Why the surprise? Well, the clue is in the name which, while not foolproof (marsh tits live in woodland, for example), often does give you a reasonable clue to habitat, and reed warblers certainly are birds of wetland, usually with associated reeds. This wasn’t the first time one had called in at the reserve but, like all the others, this individual would have been on its way later in the day.

Reed warbler by Dave Smith

Reed warbler by Dave Smith

After a lifetime of hoping to see buzzards while holidaying in the West Country or the North, I still have difficulty accepting the new status of the buzzard as a common bird in Kent, so it was with a sense of awe that I looked up yesterday (11 th June) to see six of these fine birds spiralling lazily on a thermal. It is too early for this to have been a family of parents and their offspring, so these were probably the local pair engaging in some non-contact sparring with their neighbours, making sure the intruders realised that this was their patch. Quite possibly some of the birds were wandering interlopers – unpaired and roaming the countryside in search of a vacant area that they could call their own. It appears to be the birds’ way of sizing each other up, often without resorting to meaningful aggression.

Our rare butterfly, the heath fritillary, is on the wing, and being severely buffeted by strong winds this year. Numbers will probably peak around 18 th -20 th June, and the indications so far are that a few favoured sites are doing extremely well, while numerous other colonies are struggling for survival.