A month in the countryside: connecting with nature in March

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By Susie White

In the third of her exclusive monthly columns for CPRE, Susie White gives us her tips on what to look out for in nature – celebrating what makes the North Pennines so special, as well as the everyday beauty that can inspire us all.

Living in this quiet North Pennines valley, there’s always something happening in my garden or in the surrounding fields. This morning I disturbed a sparrowhawk which flew off from by a shrub where it had been watching the blue tits. I might see a stoat investigating a stone wall, long-tailed tits doing acrobatics in the hawthorn, a roe deer crossing the field.

A brown and white stoat under a log
A stoat emerges for some springtime exploring | Ewan Jones / Alamy

Cock pheasants are right now strutting their finery, facing off with loud competitive clucks crows and wing flapping. It’s that time of year when all of nature is gearing up for breeding, when spring is tangible in increasingly warm days and longer evenings.

Five ways to connect with nature this March

1. Try your hand at moth trapping

The Garden Moth Scheme begins each year in March and new recorders are always welcome. This citizen science project has run since 2003 and I’ve been recording the moths in my garden for several years now. As data builds up, patterns emerge providing valuable information.

a patterned moth on a piece of wood
Look out for the magnificent markings of the Oak Beauty moth this March | © Susie White

Moths are drawn by a bright light and are funnelled down into the trap. Here they rest until that magic early morning moment when I look to see what has been on the wing in the night. The range of colours, patterns and markings is breathtaking, from the bright green Emerald and exotic Hawk-moths to the lichen-like Oak Beauty or yellow Brimstone. It’s a way of showing children the wonders of the natural world and they can then help to release the moths at dusk.

A large green moth camouflaged in green leaves
Can you spot the Large Emerald? Something for new moth trappers to look forward to in late spring | © Susie White

2. Get ringside for the boxing hares

Walking along a narrow lane, I can see a hare running down the road towards me. It’s March, the month when brown hares are so intent on courtship that they are much less wary. The hare slips through a gate into the field and I notice several more, behaving as ‘mad March hares’ do, despite the steady rain.

'Fed up with over-amorous males, the female hares have turned on their suitors to pummel them with their strong front paws'

Their famous boxing is generally from females who, fed up with over-amorous males, have turned on their suitors to pummel them with their strong front paws. I watch a pair as they stand on their hind legs and spar, fur flying in tufts, before she leaps across his back to escape across the greening field until she’s ready to mate.

two hares boxing in a green field
A female hare gamely fends off the male in their mad March ritual | FLPA / Alamy

3. Notice new nesters

After wintering at the coast, the oystercatchers have come back to the valley to breed. I sit by the river with my binoculars watching a pair, newly arrived, as they examine a gravelled island in the middle of the river as a possible nest site.

Oystercatchers are dramatically patterned birds, strikingly black and white with long orange-red beaks for probing the turf for worms; bills that are strong for breaking into shellfish during their period by the sea.

Their loud ‘peep peep’ calls echo round the hills, especially when feeling threatened by a dog wading in the water. They often stand sentry on the drystone wall, calling noisily as I walk past. 

two black and white birds on rocks in a river
Oystercatcher’s scoping out a nest site in the middle of the river Allen | © Susie White

4. Join in the hunt for frogspawn

There’s frogspawn in a roadside ditch, a ditch that will probably dry up later on in the season. Frogs produce vast numbers of eggs to allow for the fact that so many won’t survive: eaten by herons, snakes, newts and many other natural predators.

Frogspawn is always laid in jellied clumps whereas toad spawn forms long strings like a beaded necklace. Even a tiny garden pond will host frogs and their fast-changing and developing spawn gives children a chance to learn about life cycles.

During last year’s lockdown, 17-year-old Hannah McSorley’s isolation project studying tadpoles attracted a huge online following, inspiring many to connect with this annual natural event.

Two common frogs in a pond with twigs and frogspawn
Look out for frogspawn anywhere from ditches to tiny ponds | Washington Imaging / Alamy

5. Look for life on trees

When I’m writing I am easily distracted by the wildlife that I can see through the window. It’s often just small movements that catch my peripheral vision and there are two birds that work their way across the trunk of the ash tree. One goes up, the other goes down: Treecreeper and Nuthatch.

Treecreepers, discreet, brown speckled with pale bellies, have needle-fine down-curved bills to probe amongst bark and lichen for insects and seeds.

a brown and white bird climbing a lichen covered tree
A treecreeper climbing in search of a meal | Alan Williams / Alamy

Nuthatches are easier to spot with their warm chestnut colouring beneath steely grey-blue backs. They descend head-first, tap-tapping the tree like woodpeckers. Listen out when you’re walking in a park and see if the bird you can hear is going up or down the trunk.

a small blue and orange bird climbing down a tree trunk
A nuthatch heading down a tree trunk | Paul Miguel / Alamy

Susie White is a writer and naturalist who lives and gardens in a small valley in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Its diverse mix of habitats and landscapes provides a rich variety of wildlife to observe and record – including through her regular Country Diary entries for The Guardian.

Read more of Susie’s observations and enjoy her great photos on Twitter @cottagegardener and remember to look out for her next CPRE column in April.

A panoramic view of heathland with a bright blue sky
A sunny March day in the North Pennines Loop Images Ltd / Alamy