We are now around the zenith for fox births in the UK, with most vixens having their cubs during the first half of this month. For the first couple of days, the vixen won’t leave the cubs, particularly if it’s very cold, and she’s dependent upon her mate to bring food. Once the cubs are a few days old, she’ll leave for brief periods to drink and sometimes hunt. It’ll be another four or five weeks before the cubs appear above ground, initially playing close to the earth before exploring further afield. If you have foxes visiting your garden or find them while out and about, the swollen teats of nursing vixens are usually plainly visible. If the vixen has a mate, he will hunt for her and the cubs, and this is often a good time to see foxes out during the daytime. In areas, such as our larger cities, where foxes live in extended family groups, aunts (and very occasionally uncles) may also help by hunting for the vixen and her cubs, babysitting and even wet-nursing the cubs. Interestingly, this isn’t universally the case, and family members don’t always lend a hand.
Foxes aren’t the only ones with cubs this month. Many badger sows give birth during February and March, although badger cubs remain underground for longer than fox cubs and won’t be seen around the sett for another six to eight weeks. Badgers don’t store food, nor do clan members bring food back to nursing sows, so the new mother is forced to leave her cubs to forage.
Roe bucks are in the final stage of antler development at the moment and will shed their velvet in the next few weeks, while red and fallow deer will start to lose their antlers now. If you’re interested in learning more about what antlers are, how they grow and what their purpose is, check out my QA.
Hedgehogs are coming out of hibernation now and, if you have a hedgehog feeder in your garden, now is the time to make sure it’s cleaned out and re-stocked. Typically, males rouse from hibernation first and go on a quest for food and water to begin replenishing the fat reserves lost over winter. Leaving some food and fresh water out in your garden overnight can be a genuine life-saver for these spiky mammals.
Brown hares are getting amorous now. When male hares (bucks) detect that a female (doe) is coming into oestrus, they gather around her, and she may be shadowed by them for five days prior to coming into season. The doe will often try to escape her suitors, leading them on considerable chases around the fields. As the chases get underway, the bucks jostle for position near the doe and a hierarchy appears to develop. The dominant buck typically remains within about five metres (16 ft) of the doe’s daytime form and will bite and chase other bucks that get too close. As the female gets closer to oestrous she attracts more bucks and, despite the dominant buck’s best endeavours, she may be harassed. Periodically, during this chase, two hares can often be seen rising up on to their back legs and jabbing at each other with their forepaws; this is a behaviour referred to as “boxing”. Early naturalists believed that boxing hares were competing males but, although bucks do occasionally box with each other, usually the boxing is a doe rebuking the attentions of an overzealous buck.
The observation that hares are “mad” in March, rather than any other month, is largely a feature of circumstance. The hare’s breeding season runs from January to October and by late February most does are either pregnant or suckling their first litter, so the mad mating chase and boxing happens during the winter too. By March, however, two important things happen: the nights have contracted such that more of this breeding activity spills over into daylight, and there are more people about in the countryside to witness the behaviour. So, despite hares boxing and chasing during both January and February, it was not until March that many early naturalists observed the behaviour, hence these endearing mammals became known as “mad March hares”.
Many of our small mammals are also active and it’s worth checking river banks and canal sides this month as water voles are starting to resume activity, having spent most of the winter largely restricted to their burrow system.
There is a lot of activity among the garden birds in March, with many species courting and nesting. Robins are particularly aggressive at this time of year as they pair up, and will chase most other similarly-sized birds away, red-breasted or not. Long-tailed tits are busy now too, and many will be raising their first brood; garden fat feeders are a good refuelling point for these busy little “flying teaspoons”.
Our garden blackbirds will start to sing their spring/summer song, treaclier in nature than their autumn/winter tune and giving a real sense that spring has arrived. March also marks the start of the blackbird breeding season. In his 1988 book, A Study of Blackbirds, David Snow described the courtship display of these thrushes. It consists of oblique runs by the male combined with head-bowing, an open beak, and a “strangled” low song, after which the female remains motionless until she raises her head and tail to allow the male to mate with her. Blackbirds are generally socially monogamous (i.e. the pair will stay together and defend their territory together throughout their lifetime), but genetic analysis suggests that almost 1 in 5 chicks may be fathered by a male other than the female’s territory mate.
With the winter migrants having largely gone, we start to see some of our spring visitors arriving, including wheatears, chiffchaffs and hobbies. There are also an increasing number of lapwings to be found, while some of the huge winter murmurations of starlings are starting to break up. Some species, such as grey plovers and curlew, are likely to be found on estuaries this month as they stop off on their way to their summer breeding grounds. Kingfishers will move back inland now to breed on our river systems; March is a great time to sit and watch their courtship behaviour.
If you’re out in the woods this month, keep an ear open for the drumming of woodpeckers; all three species (greater, lesser and green) make their presence known at this time of year as they establish territories and start breeding. The tawny owls are also in fine voice this month, while buzzards are displaying and rooks starting to nest.
Much further north, March heralds the peak of the breeding season of the black grouse in north Wales, northern England and the Highlands of Scotland, with spectacular displays and fights among the male birds as they vie for the attentions of the females. More ubiquitous but equally enthralling to watch is the courtship behaviour of the great crested grebe, which is happening on ponds, lakes and reservoirs across the country this month. The crescendo of this ritual is the “weed-shaking dance” (see February).
Reptiles & amphibians
There should be plenty of frogspawn adorning ponds, pools and puddles by now. Early clumps may be killed by frost, but typically it is only the top layer of eggs that is frozen and dies, with those below the ice level being relatively more insulated and more likely to survive. Prolonged cold weather in the spring can, however, result in slower than normal development of the spawn.
Adders emerge from their hibernacula now, although those in the south of the UK appear to do so later than those in the north. Males also emerge earlier than females, to get a head start on sperm production so they’re ready for the females’ arrival. Males overwinter in groups and will often spend the first week or two after emergence basking around the hibernacula before dispersing to search for mates and food. Grass snakes will also be active now, as will lizards. Good basking spots can be difficult to come by at this time of year, so if you disturb a snake out basking, it’s worth retreating and waiting as they will often return to the basking spot once danger has passed – within about 20 minutes, in my experience.
Keep an eye out for the furry “ginger bee” darting over flowers in sunlit woodlands, parks and gardens – these are greater bee-flies and, in our garden, they are particularly fond of forget-me-nots. It’s about now I start seeing my first caterpillars of the year, and some to keep an eye out for this month are the stick-like swallow-tailed moth on hawthorn, ivy, privet and other shrubs, the striking yellow and black spotted six-spot burnet moth in open grassland, wide verges and waste ground feeding on bird’s-foot trefoil and, toward the end of the month, the blue-grey and orange caterpillars of the lackey moth, which are widespread in the south of England and hang out in webs spun in hedgerows.
Butterflies active now include the small tortoiseshell, peacock and brimstone, while caterpillars of marsh fritillaries and silver-washed fritillaries can also be found. The buff-tailed bumblebee is Britain's largest bee species and the first bee on wing in this month, while the striking black and white Friesian-patterned pied shieldbugs emerge on white dead-nettles late in the month. March is a bit early for our 'proper' grasshoppers, but a member of the Tetrigidae family, the common groundhopper, emerges from hibernation in this month.
The spiders have resumed their activity now and there are likely to be plenty of wolf spiders out basking on leaf litter, while hoverflies are a more common sight this month.
Plants & fungi
Depending on local conditions, there may be a few daffodils flowering in sheltered spots, large swathes of snowdrop (some now past their best), some primroses, small clumps of campion and even crocuses adding a splash of colour to the verges. Many trees are also now in bud and there are plenty of catkins to be found.
Streams and ditches are good places to look for newly emerged butterbur flowers, with their striking purple flowers arranged in pyramidal fashion. Old stone walls offer a great opportunity to look for delicate ferns and mosses, while the first sweet violet and lesser celandine are now flowering, adding a dash of purple and shining yellow, respectively, to our woodlands.
Sallow catkins are a draw for many insects, as is the foul-smelling arum lily, also known as “lords and ladies”. These unpleasantly-scented plants comprise a purple/yellow-coloured rod-like structure called a spadix, partially enclosed by a pale sheath (spathe), and are reliant on insects, particularly flies and midges, for pollination. They have a rather unique way of making sure their targets leave with pollen, too. The rancid smell, generated by the tip of the spadix as it gets warm, lures flies that slide down the shiny walls of the spathe into a ‘holding cell’ at the base of the sheath, from which they’re prevented from escaping by a fringe of fine hair-like projections at the top of the chamber. The stamens open and dust the flies with a shower of pollen and the flies then move around in the chamber, carrying pollen from the male cluster at the top to the larger female flowers at the bottom. Shortly afterwards, the hairs begin to wither and die and the flies can eventually flee their prison. Once fertilised, the female flowers become a cluster of bright orange and scarlet berries which can be seen later in the summer.
Fungi-wise, the bright yellow brain fungus, the delicate parasol-like porcelain fungus and the dark brown convolution that is the Jews’ ear fungus are waiting to be found this month.