First, perhaps, February's coltsfoot, its flowers like yellow chimney-sweeps' brushes; then the buttery little salad bowls of lesser celandine; followed, amid the brown skeletons of last year's growth, by the ferny leaves of cow parsley, looking like a Victorian pot-plant transplanted from front parlour to outdoors. And, any day, comes that early morning when bird voices start answering each other – not yet a dawn chorus, but an increasingly confident rehearsal.
Soon, seen from valley tops, is that curious effect of trees beginning to leaf: an Impressionist green haze on the distant branches which makes you think, at first glance, your eyes have lost focus. There's blackthorn bushes in pioneering flower (to be marked and remembered for sloe-collecting in the autumn), the departure of Brent geese from the harbour mudflats, and, on a stone wall, a partridge expectantly surveying the scene, as if it has just arrived on a longed-for vacation. It is the beginning of things.
And, from these small signs of promise, come big things: the spectacles of a British spring. Our shows of bluebells, so dense and shimmering they seem a mirage, are the finest in the world. Upon coastal breeding colonies, millions of seabirds descend, with all the suddenness and aggression of an invading army. In semi-natural spaces, such as London's Bushy Park, horse chestnuts light up with lanterns of flowers. On moorland, hen harriers skydive each other in a dance as sexual as any tango. And, in lowland trees, herons nest in an ungainly clatter.
Yet, if you listened to professional pessimists (some wildlife hotheads, and those who turn their press releases into dismal headlines), you would think spring a doomed enterprise. A warming climate, we are told, has fooled with the internal clocks of so many species that, instead of an orchestrated renewal of life, we have anarchy. Frogspawn in Pembrokeshire by December, oaks leafing and hawthorn blooming 10 days earlier than a few years ago, orange-tip butterflies more than a week ahead of schedule – a world of insects, food plants, mating and migration all chaotically out of sync. And then there are those incessant reports of species in decline. Take all this gloom at face value, and spring seems an exercise in futility: nature, like a bumblebee trapped in a greenhouse, banging its head against an obstacle it neither sees nor understands.
The week of Easter, a festival of life imposed on an older one of rebirth, seems a good time to offer an alternative view, one that credits nature's strength rather than bemoans its vulnerability. Take earlier springs and the differing reactions of species to warming climate: is it really possible that the corrective mechanism of evolution, which has worked reasonably well for millions of years, will somehow be permanently disabled by a slight rise in temperatures? Will birds dependent on caterpillars really continue, to the detriment of their species, to hatch eggs in defiance of the new date for the emergence of their young's food supply?
And wherever came the idea that the nature we should have is the nature we once had? Many of those poignantly pretty flowers that illustrate news stories on our "failing flora" are period pieces: opportunists of uncleaned cereal seeds of yesteryear, such as corn marigold, and pheasant's-eye; or, like snake's head fritillary and ragged robin, inhabitants of wet meadowland, a habitat whose time has largely passed. They are as much a feature of a countryside gone by as yokels in smocks. And who decides that the species we have lost are worth more than those we have gained?
Spring is a testament to the powers of recovery at work. Rabbits, 99 per cent of whose 100m population was killed off in the 1950s by the man-made plague of myxomatosis, have now regenerated to about 40m. The peregrine, reduced in the early 1960s by shotgun and pesticides to a few dozen pair, are now up to about 1,000 couples. Even some rare orchids are recovering. The early spider orchid has turned up in counties such as Suffolk, where it hasn't been seen for centuries, and bloomed in its thousands in Kent on spoil ' from Channel Tunnel diggings. And more can be achieved with a little human help. Special projects have brought the stone curlew, otter, Adonis blue butterfly, sand lizard, ladybird spider and others back from the brink. And the red kite, a bird once exterminated to the point where there were more members of its preservation committee than birds in the wild, now circles over Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in such quantity that to see 20 in a Chilterns sky is commonplace.
Then there are those mysterious spreadings of species' range: the collared dove, a tentative arrival in the mid-1950s but now a haunter of all but the smallest gardens; rosebay willowherb, a rarish wild flower 120 years ago, but which took off, smothered Second World War bomb sites, and, aided by its ability to produce 80,000 seeds per plant, became ubiquitous; and the fulmar, a seabird which in the 19th century began to extend around our coasts from its northern fastness, and is now established wherever there are cliffs, thanks in part to its habit of vomiting an oily substance over any intruder.
And there are those adventurous escapees which, once over the wall, found things to their liking: ring-necked parakeets occupying an arc across Surrey and west Kent; buddleia, the Chinese coloniser of waste places; Oxford ragwort, an Italian native seemingly more at home beside our railway lines; and Verbena bonariensis, a lilac-purple perennial from Brazil, once plant du jour for fashionable gardeners, now the feral décor of 1,000 London pavements.
All those biodiversity reports, and donations to this trust and that, are also paying off. Heathland has been shepherded back to health and is now expanding: we have more tree cover than at any time in the past 150 years, and the area under management for wildlife has never been greater. In 1972, the Woodland Trust had two woods; now it has more than 1,000. Britain's 47 county wildlife trusts have gone, in 80 years, from nothing to the creation of 2,234 nature reserves. Some of the most striking are on land once thought of as permanently ruined by industry: former gravel workings, opencast mines, military airfields, an old coal depot, coking works, on-shore oil field, railway marshalling yard, sewage works, and an explosives factory. Here is renewal that goes on all year. Thus, we are better placed than ever before to see the spectacles of spring, the best of which, courtesy of our leading wildlife organisations, we give on pages 14-15.
Yet, it is not just nature's more theatrical performances on specially curated reserves that can spellbind. Almost everywhere are displays of rising sap and happy hormones. Any coppice can harbour a blanket of wood anemones, its white flower far more beguiling than the tricked-up blue and pink variants sold in garden centres. From damp banks in May sprout the starry flowers of ramsons, its other name of wild garlic betrayed by the merest crushing of its pungent leaves. And there are spring sights for which you do not even need to stop your car: a patch of primroses on a Devon slope, the pink-flushed faces of lady's smock on a Sussex verge, and that most modern performer of our roadside flora, Danish scurvygrass. A coastal rarity just 25 years ago, it has thrived on the remnants of winter saltings spread on A-roads, and, in April, makes long ribbons of kerbside grass look dusted with chalk.
Of the birds, those inhabiting water reward us the most, their young soon in evidence, not hidden away until ready to fly. The bolshie little grebe, trailing in its busy wake a team of chicks desperately waggling to keep up; a swan with its crocodile of cygnets following obediently behind, like prep-school pupils on some improving outing; and the squawk of little egrets on the nest, a startling noise that makes you think a Donald Duck impersonator has hidden himself in the trees. And, for those not near water, try standing in a field of unkempt long grass on a muggy day in May as the swifts scream and swirl around you. The sights go on: a common blue butterfly sunning itself on a knapweed, its wings the colour of a china doll's eyes; the flicker of mustard yellow as a brimstone butterfly happens by; a leveret up on its hind legs to investigate a bramble; and, above all, by late May, the green of chlorophyll everywhere, so forceful you can almost taste it. Spring is not a season; it is the season.Reuse content