It is apparent from the moment I step onto the farmland that the edgeland has changed dramatically since I neglected to visit some weeks ago. Whilst I’ve been at home and walking elsewhere complaining about the wind and the low temperatures, the edgeland has been transformed into a sea of vibrant green; the nettle beds surpass my waist, the trees thick at last with full new leaf and their feathered inhabitants, although now more difficult to spot, have varied with the season and incoming migrants. The woodland rides, the track verges and the field edges are all awash with a thick froth of white; the Hawthorn is bursting into bloom and with it the warm, humid air long missing from the edgeland but returned today, a fine Spring day, is heady with the sweet, citrus scent. Everywhere the Cow Parsley is unfurling tight snow-drop buds into large umbellifers of flower, swaying like sea-foam on the shorline, feeding a myriad of hungry flies, hoverflies and bugs.
The old farm track is almost unrecognisable, the right hand side is thick with renewed Nettle and Bramble and Orang-Tip and White butterflies take advantage of the Dead-nettle flower interwoven within and the overhanging Hawthorn blossom. Chaffinches, Dunnocks and Long-tailed Tits show briefly from the hedgeline, ducking and diving back into the thick cover as I pass. The small scrub can no longer be navigated as I have all Winter; the dry stem carpet so flat and lifeless is now knee-high with Nettles whilst the Bramble thickets strangle the footways and scrabble for light, crocheting under and over itself manically until the tips of each growing stem waver in my eyeline.
The official, remaining path is just about manageable, walking sideways at least, and every now and again a clearing opens up to reveal purple flowering Common Vetch, sweet pink Dove’s-foot crane’s-bill and yet more bright-white in the form of Wild Strawberries. In the distance, looking out over the river Sence, Swallows, recent arrivals, rocket above the surface film and out over the arable land gulping down insects by the dozen.
The entrance to the woodland ride is a sight to behold. Where before this small copse revealed the farmland beyond through empty, wrought-iron branch it now draws you in, walled thick-green, giving the impression of a deep woodland much larger. The network of Nettle-beds that line the floor and the woodland edge are visibly alive; each step and brush brings new hopping, jumping, flying and scrabbling insects and invertebrates out into the open glade in droves. Where the sun breaks through the canopy and beats down upon the flora, the droves are larger still.
Nettle-tap Moths flutter lazily skywards whilst male Green Longhorn moths, dayflyers, dance elegantly above each shrub, iridescent wings shine green, then gold, then blue as the light refracts from each shimmering scale. Antenna, twice the length of the moth itself, sway serenely in the breeze and the reverberation of air disturbed by tiny wing-beats, a real beauty of a creature, otherworldly and faery-like.
More grounded are the array of Craneflies navigating the Nettle jungle below, merely skipping from leaf to leaf as flying is an effort and clumsy at best. It’s then I notice another treat, Panorpa germanica, one of only two Scorpionflies to be found in the County. I can clearly see the beak-like projection from its head that is uses to feed, scavenging on dead insects and frequently stealing the contents of spider’s webs whilst laced-wings mottled with black freckles give way to a yellow and black striped body where at the abdomen base it breaks into the blood-red tip that gives this stunning insect its name. Unlike a Scorpion, it does not sting, the tail-tip mere for courtship display. Adults usually mate at night, but mating can be a dangerous game for the male, who might easily be killed by the female. So he presents her with a nuptial gift of a dead insect or a mass of saliva to placate her. Nice.
The sewage-works meadow too is unrecognisable. Completely covered in Cleaver and Nettle the gentle slope to the Badger set is now barely discernible, the new growth has seemingly levelled the land. From the Willow-lined beck, birdsong is abundant and amongst it new tunes prevail; Willow Warblers, another migrant returnee, whittle sweet notes like scent on a breeze from all around that is green. I stand and watch Long-tailed tits break from the hedge, pluck insects from mid-air and flit back to the trees. Being a sewage works, it is hard to avoid the seriously large number of gnats and flies that whilst cause problems for me (best to keep nostrils, mouth and eyes covered) are a veritable feast for the thriving songbirds here. So much so, that this small patch of meadow and young woodland presents the largest concentration of Robins that I have ever seen. Usually, such strictly territorial birds (they can fight to the death) it seems any such notion of territory has been abandoned here. Each tree will commonly hold three Robins and each tree is spaced just metres from the other; the food supply is so rich that they have simply given up laying claim to any strict patch of land.
Nowhere is this bird-food bonanza more evident that in the large scrub. A month or so ago, the puddles that sat here on the path were teaming with life, each puddle clouded black by thousands upon thousands of growing mosquito larvae where even just an ounce of standing water, according to the textbooks, is enough to sustain a whole population. This boom in flying fauna is now evident in the skies. The tall trees that line the boundary of the large scrub appear almost on fire; it soon becomes clear that the plumes of thick black smoke rising from the tree-tops are in fact swarms of fungus gnats and mosquitoes, each cloud a million thick. It isn’t the most pleasant of sights, I will admit, and traversing the large scrub sometimes becomes impossible at the height of Summer when they easily detect the perspiration on our skin and bombard us as they try to take in diet-essential salts. Today, the sight is more bearable as I watch more than one pair of Spotted Flycatchers (another migrant, recently returned to the edgeland) poised on branch-tips, every so often leaping forward to pinch a bill-full of flies before perching back on exactly the same branch to repeat the cycle just seconds later. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the scrub could house a thousand Flycatchers and still not make so much as a dent in the population.
With the sun now beating down with a degree of warmth I haven’t felt for weeks and being overdressed, perspiration taking hold and gnats incoming, I made a quick exit from the large scrub. It isn’t all bad, the scrub is a haven for butterflies and within five minutes I counted Peacock, Holly Blue, Orange Tip, Small White, Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell. Every gnat cloud, it seems, has a multi-coloured lining.
Walking back through the woods, I stop again in the glade to watch the moths dance. With some encouragement, my wife laid out her palm and waited briefly; a little trick I’ve learnt is that, pause long enough in the heat and offer up some skin and insects usually too flighty to observe closely will come in and land, seeking sodium essential for survival and so readily found in human perspiration. Within a few moment, the iridescent flutter of tiny Longhorn wings came to rest in her hand. It might seem a little grim, all this talk of sweat, but it is a great way to get as close as possible to nature and it works wonders with butterflies too. Whilst my wife was busy with her new friend (really I just wanted to get a better photograph but to no avail, thanks to my clumsiness) I spotted Leucozona lucorum, a real beauty of a Hoverfly and a new one for the edgeland species list. Unlike most of our hoverflies, this large species is not the typical yellow and black, instead it is adorned by a gorgeous ivory band with delicate, slightly splayed wings marked with a black band that aligns perfectly the the black abdomen when closed. This mix of black and ivory gives the hoverfly a lovely dusky-blue tone and is almost bee-like in appearance.
I could have sat amongst the undergrowth in the Spring-heat for hours, photographing and identifying an array of insects unknown to me until my heart’s content. After weeks of drab and dreary weather how nice it was to feel the sun on my arms, my face. The emerald growth that has transformed the edgeland on days like today is enriched by light so clean and golden it seemed remarkable to be just the work of a few weeks. The hum and buzz of life below and endless notes of songs anew or unheard from these tree-tops for six months or so breathes yet new life, new adventure into the landscape. When the sun eventually shines and a British Spring is in full swing there is no better feeling on earth than to be surrounded by it, cloaked in it like a great comfort blanket. In Spring, life threatens to burst at the seems, a great race is underway for both flora and fauna to reproduce, make new. A mad rush. In a moment when everything wild is busy, how refreshing to feel so calm.