January – the month of shortest days and often clear skies and cold days. It’s not the most obvious month for spotting wild-life but there are plenty of things to see. Towards the end of the month the first signs of new life spring into view with early snowdrops. These are closely followed by the small Iris Reticulata (like perfect little mini purple Iris). As it’s likely to be cold outside you will probably want large things to spot, so do look out for Kestrels, Buzzards, Ravens and owls. There is a Buzzard living close to Toft Hall and it is frequently spotted. Similarly they are common over The Roaches. At Merrymeet a Barn Owl flies over the house and fields most evenings. At Toft the Barn Owls tend to fly over the fields to the right of the driveway as you go up the drive. If you want guaranteed wildlife sightings why not visit Blackbrook Zoo, between Leek and Ashbourne (only a couple of miles or so from Hamps Hall, Hamps Barn and Merrymeet) and view everything from Penguins to Meercats?
February – the month of snow (well just sometimes!) Of course snow, apart from looking beautiful, does have the advantage of
showing animal tracks. At Toft you are likely to see where the hares have hopped through the courtyard. At Roaches Hall it will be squirrels that leave such evidence and at Hamps you may even spot a badger’s tracks away from the house. At Toft Hall you may see some early frog spawn in the pond, but do be careful anywhere near water. In the sheltered hedgerows catkins are blooming, swaying gently in the breeze. Long-tailed tits are common British birds. They occasionally visit gardens (although not daily like blue, great and coal tits) but they are most often seen moving in delightful parties through hedgerows from November to March. In the gardens look out for lots of plants in flower such as sweet violets, daffodils and hellebores. Visit Hopton Hall near Carsington Water for their renowned Snowdrop walks.
March – the days are lengthening and at the end of the month the clocks change so those lovely lighter evenings arrive. How could we talk about March without mentioning Mad March Hares? We have lots of hares, especially at Toft – although it is still quite rare to see them ‘boxing’ (this behaviour is actually a female hare trying to fend off an amorous suitor – not two males fighting). Do you know how to tell the difference between hares and rabbits? Well, rabbits are much smaller and have a rounder, softer shape, whereas hares are more angular with large ears that have a dark stripe down them. Oh, and Hares don’t dig burrows they live entirely on the ground. All three species of British resident woodpeckers can be found around all the Party Houses. You may see a Green Woodpecker flying by at any time or feeding on the ground from March to September. You are more likely to hear a Greater-Spotted (or the less common Lesser-Spotted) Woodpecker drumming rather than see them (it’s a common sound in our woods at Roaches Hall). Siskins are small dark green and black finches and Goldcrests are tiny (smaller than the wren which many people think is the smallest British bird) greenish birds with a conspicuous black-bordered orange head stripe. Both can be tracked down in any woodland, especially where pine trees are dominant and they may venture into gardens especially in the springtime. At Toft Hall pond you should also be able to spot a newt or two. The bees are starting to look for place to nest at this time of year. And, in spite of the horror stories in the press about honey bees being endangered, a number of different bumble-bees are abundant in this area.
April – Spring has well and truly sprung! As our fauna is a bit later to flower high up here than many of you will be used to, you may be surprised to still see daffodils in flower. But the real stars are the wild flowers now blooming – Cowslips, Primrose and Butterbur (these are very strange looking with the spikes of ‘dirty pink’ flowers appearing before the huge rhubarb-like leaves form), Wood Sorrel (one of several wild-flowers commonly known as Shamrock), Wood Anemones and Lesser Celandine are all particularly fulsome along the brook and valley near Merrymeet. These spring woodland flowers are essential sources of nectar for butterflies and hoverflies. In late April and early May look out for bluebells in the dell near Gig Hall (a short walk from Toft). April is the month when the bird spring migration really kicks in. Who knows what you might see or hear if you get out in the country? The first cries of the Curlews are heard. In winter these birds fly to estuaries and coastal wetlands and then return to us to breed – their cry and appearance (with a long curved bill) is very distinctive. We also hear another bird with a harsh call – the pheasant. For a while we had one regularly knocking on the windows of Toft Nook to say hello! Swallows and House Martins begin to arrive and look for nesting sites. You may hear Chiff Chaffs and Willow Warblers singing – you are unlikely to see either of these small leaf warblers and if you do you won’t be able to identify which it is until it sings. The Chiff Chaff is named after its repetitive two-note song and tends to hang around near the top of small trees and large shrubs. The Willow Warbler stalks at a lower level and frequently lets out its pleasant wistful descending song. Most excitingly Peregrine Flacons have for the last couple of years nested on Hen Cloud. Notices on our drive at Roaches Hall warn climbers and walkers to avoid the nesting site which is just above us.
May – my favourite month of the year! I love the bright green new leaves as they unfurl on the trees, especially against a clear blue sky. Everything feels fresh and alive. The hawthorn hedges are covered in fragrant white flowers and the large candelabra flowers of the horse chestnut (conker) trees seem to bloom overnight. Cow Parsley is in full flower along many of our country lanes and this then attracts many insects and butterflies. For a really bright yellow show, look out for hillsides of gorse bushes in full flower. There are some great patches near Wincle and also in the Manifold Valley. The Swallows and House Martins are all back now. In open hilly country and overgrown meadows you have a good chance of seeing or hearing Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. You may see the first Spotted Flycatchers, which are abundant in woodland and around buildings with trees nearby, flying from and returning to the same branch or if you go walking around Swythamley you may see a Pied Flycatcher or two in late May or June. The dawn chorus is truly spectacular from late April to mid-June. It is, of course, all about sex as it is male birds initially establishing territory and attracting a mate and then celebrating his success and defending his territory. A few birds like the ever present robin sing all year round but most stop completely or do so very rarely after the breeding season is over. If you are up at 5 a.m. it really is worth going out or, at least, throwing the windows open to enjoy it!
June – the longest days are combined with fresh foliage and the promise of the summer to come. We have a herd of large wild Red Deer living close by. Several times a year we see them crossing our fields around Toft Hall. Having 20 or more large deer jumping over the fences and galloping across our fields is quite a sight! Somewhat smaller, are the newly emerged frogs in the pond as the tadpoles are a memory for another year. If you find yourself near any water, especially the River Dane, keep a look out for Mallards, Goosander, Mandarin ducks, Dippers and, ‘the jewel of British birds’, the Kingfisher. All these birds are resident in the south-east corner of Cheshire but this is probably the best time to catch a glimpse of the latter gem. The Peak District is famous for its wild orchids. These can be found in many fields (often the steep ones above the valleys where they are less disturbed). The Staffordshire and Derbyshire Wildlife Trusts sometimes organise Orchid days, which are well worth looking out for. Many young birds leave their nests in June, but if you find a young one on the ground, please don’t pick it up, Mum and Dad are normally close by and will look after it. Our local farmers grab any sunny days to cut silage. Meadows are cut and the grass chopped up very small in order to feed cattle during the coming winter.
July – the hottest month (hopefully!). It is also a wonderful month for watching the Owls, Buzzards and Peregrine young flying for the first time and learning to hunt. Aside from the larger Barn Owls, Little Owls are a common sight (and they are little too!), all the more so as they are often sit quite happily and visibly in the middle of the day. If you don’t get too close, they bob from side-to-side checking you out rather than flying away. On the higher ground of the peat moors that the Peak District is so famous for, there is a spectacular display of heather (we have more here than anywhere except Scotland) in beautiful purple flower. You may be lucky and spot a Red Grouse in the heather if you walking on or driving through the moors around Buxton. Ring Ouzels breed there and Hen Harriers and Short-Eared Owls can also be spotted anywhere from The Roaches to Buxton. Also on the same moors, the bilberries are ripening and make a lovely pie filling (but you do have to pick an awful lot for one small pie!) The gorse is also still in bloom which can make for a colourful hillside. Anytime from March until as late as October you can see a variety of butterflies but July is probably the best month. Buddleia bushes are common in gardens, churchyards and on any waste ground and are a magnet for several types of butterfly. The most common in the Party Houses area are three different Whites, Orange Tip, Peacock, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood and Small Tortoiseshell. You may see something a bit more unusual like a Comma or Common Blue. If you do spot anything else, please leave a note in the house book!
August – balmy summer holidays. The warm muggy evenings are a good time to sit outside and watch the summer flight of the Pipistrelle Bats. These charming creatures are the smallest bats in Europe and a delight to watch as they dart this way and that in order to catch insects in the light as the sun goes down. They are extremely common but there also Long-eared Bats around so see if you spot the difference when you’ve had a few glasses of Pimms! And, for the squeamish, they are totally harmless and catch a lot of bugs that are not. This is the hardest time of the year for keen bird-watchers because the trees are still in full leaf and many birds are now silent. But you should still see plenty of corvids, finches, thrushes and tits in the fields and gardens. Bumble-bees abound on Meadow Cranesbill and other wildflowers. My insect guide book (which is for beginners) has over 30 different bumble-bees. So sit near some garden or wildflowers and have a go at identifying the different bands of colour on their bodies – invariably different combinations black, white, cream, yellow, orange and/or red.
September – often has still very warm days. But our summer visitors prepare to leave – Swallows gather in large groups on telephone wires. One day in September 2008, I was gardening at Merrymeet and was entertained by a group of four young mammals, almost certainly Weasels, playing in the long grass. Look out for these, stoats and even polecats around Merymeet, Hamps and Toft. Another joy of this month is the collection of blackberries from hedgerows – the juiciest ones are always at the end of the shoot. Berries are everywhere for the birds too, from Rowan berries to Rosehips, bright red gleaming in the autumn sun. The hills of the Peak District do not support the growing of cereal crops, but the last of the summer hay is cut if the dry weather holds out.
October – the days are shortening and autumn mellowness is in its prime. The Red Deer
are rutting. This is a magnificent sight – but don’t get too close – these stags are big! The best chance of seeing the Red Deer is at Toft. Even if you don’t see them, when walking in this area, especially along the Dane in Wincle and Swythamley, you may hear the rather frightening calls of the stags. The Tawny Owls are quite noisy at this time of year too. The young have left their nests and are trying to find territory of their own. You could see Tawny Owls at any of our Party Houses. The summer migrants have gone but now some winter visitors start to arrive. By far the most common are the Fieldfares and Redwings, two varieties of thrush, which breed much further north and east but are in the UK from October to March. As the leaves fall from the trees, the vistas open up and the views expand gloriously. Many species of mushroom and other fungi appear in the autumn, especially October, but if you’re interested in this particular bit of nature you can find something most of the year. Of course, we must warn you not to pick and eat any fungi unless you are 100% sure it is safe to do so. If you do know what you’re doing then you and your friends are in for a treat – there’s nothing in the world like wild mushrooms. Oh, OK, strawberries, chocolate, ice-cream (we have some great local ice cream made in the Peak District – do check it out!)…
November – and Bonfire Night lights the sky. If you continue to look up you will see the distinctive nests of our larger birds such as rooks, magpies and crows (it is hard to see these in the summer months when the leaves are on the trees). You will also enjoy the wonderful bark of silver birch trees (we have a few in our wood at Roaches Hall). Blackbirds arrive from Siberia. Generally the hardier males stay at home so suddenly they have more female company! Hawthorn berries attract many birds, including very occasional ‘eruptions’ of Waxwings. These winter visitors are more common on the east side of England but are unmistakeable if you do come across them.
December – Christmas decorations and dark nights add a special flavour to this month. So we have to talk about robins and holly and ivy! All of these feature strongly around here. The holly trees in the garden at Toft Hall often have lovely red berries (although country lore is that a lot of red berries equals a harsh winter to come). Ivy can be found in abundance in the woods around Roaches Hall and Merrymeet has a regular robin visitor. Another bird with a red breast is the male Bullfinch. These are not as easily spotted as the ubiquitous Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch but both the male and female have a conspicuous dark cap and white rump, which is all you see if you catch them darting for cover in the winter.