Spring wildlife guide: where to see and how to identify

Come spring, the British countryside is teeming with wildlife. Find out where to see the early signs of spring and how to identify spring wildlife with our expert guide 

9th March 2018

What are the early signs of spring?

Rest assured, winter is departing. From boisterous badger cubs to blossoming blackthorn, look out for these key signs that spring is on its way with our expert guide to spring wildlife. 

- Spring in the countryside - 14 wonders not to miss - we ask 14 poets, writers, broadcasters and artists to pick their personal spring marvels...

- How to identify spring blossom

- Bluebells guide: where to find, best bluebell walks around the UK and how to grow your own

Cuckoo flowers in the ditches

Cuckoo flowers bloom among ditches in late March/Credit: Getty
Cuckoo flowers bloom among ditches in late March/Credit: Getty

The small, delicate, soft-lilac blooms of cuckoo flower appear along ditches and other wet places at the end of March in southern Britain and can still be found in bloom until June in more northerly areas. The origins of its alternative name, lady’s smock, are unclear though might be a slightly oblique reference to what young people once got up to in spring meadows. Cuckoo flower is the main food plant for the orange-tip butterfly and where the flowers are thick on the ground, you may find exciting numbers of this early spring butterfly swirling above and engaged in the vital quest to mate.

Brimstone fly-by

Brimstone butterfly
Warm March days stir the beautiful Brimstone out of hibernation/Credit: Getty

This gorgeous yellow flying-handkerchief of a butterfly is one of our earliest to appear. Warm March days stir it out of hibernation and into wandering over gardens and along woodland rides and meadows looking for early flowers to feed from. While the male is a bright buttery yellow, the female is pale green but both look remarkably like leaves when at rest, which proves a useful camouflage from birds. Unlike many UK butterfly species, brimstone numbers are stable and it has even increased its range northwards in recent years, potentially due to climate change. Brimstone caterpillars feed on buckthorn and alder buckthorn leaves and the next generation emerges in August.

Blackthorn blossoms

Blackthorn blossoms cover hedgerows from early March/Credit: naturepl.com
Blackthorn blossoms cover hedgerows from early March/Credit: naturepl.com

Tiny, frosty white flowers cover our hedgerows from early March and are an important early source of nectar for bees and other insects. As the insects forage, they pollinate the flowers and by autumn these will have developed into tiny plum-like fruits that we call sloes. The blackthorn, as its name suggests, fiercely protects its wares with sharp spines up to 3cm long – sloe hunters beware. Blackthorn leaves are feasted on through the summer by a number of butterfly and moth caterpillars, including black and brown hairstreaks.

Chiffchaffs landing

Listen out for the distinctive song of the chiffchaff to herald the start of spring/Credit: Getty
Listen out for the distinctive song of the chiffchaff to herald the start of spring/Credit: Getty

Along with the sand martin, the chiffchaff is just about the first summer visitor to return to Britain from its winter feeding grounds around the Mediterranean and North Africa. Its two-note song seems to pop winter’s bubble and heralds warmer, longer days of joy.  While the voice is distinctive, the bird is less so – but the still leaf-less trees can help you pinpoint this diminutive olive-brown singer. Between songs, the chiffchaff forages avidly for spiders and other early spring invertebrates.

Wild garlic aroma

Breathe in the pungent scent of wild garlic in spring/Credit: Drew Buckley
Breathe in the pungent scent of wild garlic in spring/Credit: Drew Buckley

Green spears thrust from the woodland floor this month as ramsons – wild garlic – has its moment in the sun. In some damper woods, especially alongside streams, ramsons can dominate, emitting a powerful garlicky odour. The taste is mild and the leaves make a fine addition to sandwiches and salads. As spring progresses, bright globular flowerheads emerge, providing a beautiful contrast to bluebells where the two species cohabit.   

How to identify wild garlic

Flowering from April through to June, wild garlic blankets the forest floor of the UK's woodlands. Blooming just before bluebells, wild garlic is distinguishable by its smell rather than its appearance.

The star-shaped flowers clustered at the end of a single long stem differentiate the edible plant from its woodland neighbours; Lily of the Valley is a poisonous lookalike of wild garlic and they often are mis-identified due to their similar leaf shape. The entire garlic plant is edible; to find out more about cooking with wild garlic check out: http://www.countryfile.com/wild-garlic-guide-plus-recipes

Badger cubs emerge

Badger in the bluebells
Spring is the perfect time to go badger-watching as young cubs emerge/Credit: AdrianHinchcliffe

Female badgers – sows – usually give birth in February. Deep in the womb-like safety of the sett, the youngsters grow over the next six weeks or so, gradually exploring the tunnels and chambers as they gain in confidence.

Where to see badgers

They make their first tentative visits to the outside world at night in mid to late April, closely protected by their mother. They are playful and boisterous and venture ever further as they grow stronger. The adult badgers feast greedily on earthworms brought to the surface by the warmer weather and the youngsters learn from them. It is the perfect time to go badger-watching. 

Great crested grebe

Great crested grebe
Look out for the graceful great crested grebe come spring/Credit: Getty

There’s something of the Strictly Come Dancing waltz about the courtship ritual of great crested grebes. Look out for the immaculately synchronised weaving, bobbing and parallel swimming of the resident pair on your local park lake or reservoir. The male will even dive and offer his partner water weed and the dance finale involves a frantic paddling manoeuvre where the birds appear to run on water. 

Dog-violets in bloom

Dog violets in bloom/Credit: Alamy
Dog violets in bloom/Credit: Alamy

These discreet flowers are easily overlooked by those on a mission pounding along country lanes and beside hedge banks. But if you stop to look along the ferns and grasses, you’ll soon see dozens of these glorious little blooms. Early dog-violets can be spotted in March, followed by common dog-violets and sweet violets. The latter prefers more open sites – in old pasture and churchyards – and is easily distinguished by its attractive aroma, which in medieval times was used to freshen up the household. Dog-violets have no scent. 

Goat willow explosion

Silvery catkins known as 'pussy willow' are the male flowers of the goat willow/Credit: Alamy
Silvery catkins known as 'pussy willow' are the male flowers of the goat willow/Credit: Alamy

Silken, silvery catkins, known as ‘pussy willow’, are the male flowers of the goat willow, our most common willow species. They first emerge in late January, one of the earliest signs of spring, and fully open up in March, becoming a brilliant yellow and attracting every pollinating creature in the neighbourhood. On a warm late March day, a goat willow is an excellent place to pause and see who’s about in the insect world. Goat willows can be found in wetlands, along ditches, park lakes and even urban wasteland.

 Frog spawn conjuring trick

Frogspawn awake from their slumber/Credit: Alamy
Frogspawn awake from their slumber/Credit: Alamy

While it might still feel like hibernating weather to us, mid February may see stirrings in the garden pond. A plop and sudden ripples as you approach mean that frogs have woken from their slumbers in the pond-bed mud and are in the preludes of mating. Spawning happens overnight so you might awaken to find you’ve missed all the action – billowing clouds of bubbly spawn fill the pond margins and the frogs sit around smoking their metaphorical post-coital cigarettes. Keeping watching the spawn though. The transformation of the black dots within into viable living things never loses its magic.

Good hare days

British hare
Hares have become rarer, but with a bit of luck you might just spot one/Credit: Alamy

The new growth of grasses, herbs and wildflowers is a massive boost for hares in spring. They do not hibernate so, being large and active mammals, they need a constant supply of food throughout the year – something that only habitats rich in native flora can provide. As these have become rarer, so have hares. But now is one of the best times to see them – before the vegetation has grown high enough to hide them. Look for hares silhouetted on downland ridges or running, antelope-like, across fields of autumn-sown cereals.

Trumpeting of wild daffodils

A cheery note come spring/Credit: Alamy

A few fields and woods near the attractive town of Newent on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border are among the last strongholds of the native daffodil. This more delicate ancestor of the daff that we all know and love can be distinguished by its small size and its paler petals around a darker yellow trumpet. Wild daffodils were once abundant but have vanished due to loss of suitable habitat. But with luck you may stumble on them in the nearby Black Mountains of Monmouthshire, the Lake District and quiet lanes in Devon.

Great tit’s notes of joy

Great tit
As the warmer weather arrives so does the great tit. Listen out from March/Credit: Alamy

As early as warmer days in mid January, great tits tentatively sound out mates and neighbours with a clear, two-note call tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher. It’s a spirited, hopeful call that grows stronger in March though begins to lose its power by late April as the bird leaves the stage to feed its first brood of young. In its place, other species – especially woodland migrants such as blackcaps, willow warblers and chiffchaffs – fill the airwaves alongside native blackbirds, songthrushes and robins. 

Tree bumblebee 

Tree bumblebee
Tree bumblebee is a relatively new species to the UK/Credit:Getty

This species of bumblebee is relatively new to the UK, first identified just over a decade ago in Wiltshire, arriving from mainland Europe. They have become more abundant throughout the country due to the installation of bird boxes, which create an ideal nests for these spring pollinators. 

How to identify a tree bumblebee

They are easily identifiable by their tawny, black and white banding - quite different from the bright yellow of your traditional Garden bee. 

Figwort Weevil

Figwort weevil
Hard to spot in the dirt, figwort weevils 'play dead' to avoid detection/Credit: Alamy

Weevils are all very small beetles. Of the 1,500 species of weevils in Europe, this is one of the smallest at just 3mm in length. Their long snout-like structure is called a Rostrum at the end of which are the weevils jaws, used for munching their way through figwort and buddleia. They are widely distributed but very easily overlooked due to their tiny size. 

How to identify figwort weevil

When distressed a weevil it will drop to the ground and play dead! Or will be so well camouflaged that you may not even notice it; this weevil could easily be mistaken for a speck of dirt.  

Green longhorn moth

Green longhorn moth
Green longhorn moth are easy to confuse with butterflies

Scientific Name: Adela reaumurella

Day flying moths are easy to confuse with butterflies due to their bright colours and similar habits. The male here shows the long white antenna unlike the females who have shorter, black and white antenna. This species is common across England and southern Scotland, with much more localised habitats in Ireland. 

How to identify green longhorn moth

If you're lucky you may catch a mating swarm in late May to June; often around the tops of trees and bushes. Their tiny wingspan of 14-18mm classes them as micro moths and their metallic wings have given them the nickname of "fairy" moths. 


Scientific Name: Crocus vernus "Pickwick"/Credit: Getty

A Dutch breed, C.vernus was introduced to produce the variety of petal colours we see today. These delicately veined flowers spring into life from March, adding a vibrant splash to the yellow of traditional spring Daffodils. 

These crocus' have larger bulbs than their English cousins and thrive in thick grass and woodland moss. 

Oil Beetle

Violet oil beetle
Scientific Name: Meloe proscarabaeus

We have 4 species of oil beetle in this country; black, violet, rugged and short-necked. They are flightless beetles which release oily secretions when distressed. Despite their name, the black and violet oil beetles may have a black, blue or purple shine to their abdomen, identifiable only by the texture of their thorax. A female is photographed above, identifiable by her enormous abdomen which swells when she eats or is ready to lay eggs. 

These stunning insects have a one of the most complex life cycles of the insect world After hatching in the soil, the larvae of oil beetles must quickly find a food source - pollen being the preferred choice. Larvae position themselves in a spring flowers, awaiting a mining bee to catch a ride on. They are then transported back to the nest where they munch their way into adulthood, before emerging with the other hatchlings to start the whole cycle again.


Ladybirds become a common site throughout Britain in spring/Credit: Getty

Ladybirds overwinter in a dormant inactive state, using energy to maintain their internal bodily functions. As the weather begins to warm up in spring, they become a common site throughout the UK, preying on aphids which can be found on plants such as Rosemary as in the above photo. 

The ladybird's bright colours deter predators, warning of the toxic "reflex blood" they secrete when attacked. There are 26 recognisable species of ladybird in the uk, 14 of which can be found in the low herb and scrub layers of deciduous woodlands. 

Japanese Cherry Blossom

Japanese cherry blossom
A key celebration in Japan, Japanese cherry blossom is a symbol for renewal and optimism

Blossom is a key features of spring. Japanese Cherry blossom is one of the most popular garden trees in the UK, their flowers varying from bright white to deep pink. These trees bloom from early April for just 14 days before leaves begin to grow.

There is a great deal of symbolism in the blossom cycle in Japanese culture; the flowers represent the fragility and beauty of life while the annual cycle of blossom to leaves is a reminder of renewal and optimism. 

Delight in the dawn chorus 

Singing robin

Singing us into spring, the birds really get going with their morning melodies by early March as they seek to attract mates and defend their territories. The early-worm-catchers are the skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds whereas smaller birds such as wrens and warblers seem to stay in bed until it's a bit warmer. 

Listen to the dawn chorus recorded by editor Fergus Collins on his podcast from the Blorenge Mountain in Monmouthshire.

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