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How to spot badgers and bluebells in Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 May 2018

Badger in bluebells (c) Paul Hobson

Badger in bluebells (c) Paul Hobson

Paul Hobson

Better weather, badgers and bluebells combine to make this Paul Hobson’s favourite month of the year

Badger in bluebellsBadger in bluebells

Spring is now well under way and warm air will be percolating down into Derbyshire’s badger setts, encouraging the new cubs to venture above ground for the first time.

Initially the cubs stay by the sett for their first few months as they gain weight and learn how to interact with their siblings and the adults of the sett. Badgers from different setts come out in the evening at different times. In the majority of cases this is always after dark as they prefer the security of the night, yet if a sett is not disturbed by dogs or walkers’ footfalls during the day many badgers will often venture out before nightfall. Badger watching should always be done initially under guidance until you are sure of the dos and don’ts that could disturb these fantastic creatures. Once you are sure you know the correct etiquette there is nothing better than sitting with your back resting against a sturdy oak on a late May evening watching the badgers emerge, groom and play before the adults wander off for their nightly feeds. If the sett is in a bluebell wood, all the better!

In early May it is always worth keeping an eye on the state of your local bluebells. Generally, most bluebells tend to be at their best in early May but in cold springs this can easily be delayed for two or three weeks. Bluebells are one of British nature’s annual high points. Not only are they stunning, they are quintessentially British as our islands hold half of the global total. On warm days not only will you be amazed by the superb blue haze stretching through the woods (such as those at Calke Abbey, Bluebell Wood on the Sett Valley Trail near Hayfield, or in the Moss Valley near Sheffield), but you should also come across one of our earliest spring butterflies, the orange tip. These have over-wintered as pupae and will emerge in May. You need to be vigilant though because green-veined white butterflies may also be flying and whilst the orange-tip is like a belisha beacon, it is only the male who is actually orange tipped – the female has black tips to her wings.

On the moors where the sun shines on warm, south-facing, bilberry-clad valley sides another of our early spring butterflies will be on the wing. However, unlike the orange tip, it is quite difficult to spot. I always find the best method for locating this metallic-green jewel is to identify a good spot (such as many of the shallow valley sides on Derwent and Howden moors) then pick a warm, sunny afternoon and sit amongst the bilberries. I then watch out for a small, brown, fast-flying butterfly whizzing past. If I can follow it with my eyes (which is never easy but does improve with practice), I watch until it lands. It will now have disappeared but, by keeping my eye on the spot where it landed, walking quietly up, and not allowing my shadow to fall across the area, I scan the bilberries until I spot the stunning green metallic wings, which will almost certainly be folded up – they are only green on the under wing. Green hairstreak watching can be frustrating but it’s great sport!

A female linnet with nesting material restin on gorseA female linnet with nesting material restin on gorse

From a Derbyshire perspective, May should be considered early-purple orchid month. Mid May is usually the best time but they do vary in their peak flowering if the weather is warm or cold. One factor which seems to affect the size of the plants is the rainfall over the previous few months. In dry springs the plants can remain very short. The area around Peter’s Stone in Cressbrook Dale is possibly the best spot to experience, en-masse, the stunning flowering of this beautiful plant. However, many other dales, such as the top and middle of Lathkill Dale, have groups of the orchid on their grassy banks.

By the middle of May nearly all the spring migrant birds have returned. Pied flycatchers in Padley Wood will now be breeding whilst garden warblers and blackcaps will be singing hard as they start to nest. On the moors golden plovers will be hatching their chicks and whinchat’s sitting on eggs, whilst our resident stonechats will already have fledged their first brood and be thinking about starting to build their second nest. In our gardens and allotments fox cubs will be playing each dawn as they wait for mother or father to bring back a rabbit or a wood pigeon.

Gorse is a fantastic plant any month of the year as it always seems to have a few flowers but it is at its most resplendent in May. Rich yellow flowers, with a heady, almost almond-like scent make any time spent around this shrub memorable. If you are prepared to spend a bit of time watching you may find a small colony of linnets using the thorny cover to build their nests.

If I had to pick a favourite month of the year I would definitely select May. The warm, longer days coupled with active bird and mammal life, bluebell woods, limestone dales clad with early-purple orchids and two of our most stunning butterflies make this a cracking month.

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