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Wild daffodils at Lea Wood, Sue Crookes Wild daffodils at Lea Wood, Sue Crookes

The wild flowers are blooming and Derbyshire is bursting with birdsong. Here are the top Derbyshire wildlife experiences for spring...


Spring (February/March)

Sway with dancing grebes

These slinky water birds are famous for their wonderful courtship dance, a ritual fit for ‘Strictly’.

As mists rise from the water’s surface on early spring mornings, great crested grebe pairs join together to dance. With orange and black head plumes spread wide, an elegant ritual of head shaking, bill-dipping and preening culminates in the famous ‘penguin dance’, when the pair rush together, paddling their feet frantically to raise upright from the water, standing chest to chest, flicking a beak-full of water weed at each other before one final shake of the head and the weed is dropped, and the deal is clinched.

The 19th century saw a fashion for bird plumes, and the great crested grebe was almost driven to extinction in Britain, the head plumes (or ‘tippets’) used on hats and densely-feathered ‘grebe fur’ made into the lining of fashionable capes and muffs. By the 1860s there were maybe as few as 30 pairs left in the whole country.

The plight of the great crested grebe was one of the triggers for the birth of the modern conservation movement: attitudes and laws were changed, and there are now around 4600 pairs, and great crested grebes can be seen dancing their dance on many park lakes, reservoirs, gravel pits and canals.


Great crested grebes are widely distributed across lowland Britain. Find a gravel pit, lake or canal with a pair in residence and try your luck. To make things more comfortable, settle in to a bird hide at a wetland nature reserve. All you need is a pair of binoculars and a little patience… although a thermos of hot tea might be appreciated too. If you are lucky enough to see that final penguin dance, then come back in five weeks’ time and you should be able to see their humbug babies, riding on their parents’ back.

If you can’t get to the special places listed below…

Your local park lake may not be home to great crested grebes, but look out for coot. Although not as extravagant as grebes, their courtship display involves pairs bowing in front of each other and nibbling the top of each other’s head, with wings raised and tail fluffed up. Coots are also very territorial, frequently chasing other birds off from their patch.

From the comfort of your computer, you can also see some great footage of grebes going about their business at the BBC website.


Hilton Gravel Pits, Derbyshire 
Willington Gravel Pits, Derbyshire 



Spring (February/March)

Take a ringside seat

Early spring is the best time to see the fastest land mammal in the country, the brown hare.

Reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour at full pelt, the brown hare is one of our great athletes, easily able to outpace Usain Bolt. The brown hare’s great speed can make it a tricky character to get a good look at. Luckily, “mad March hares” choose a different sport in the spring, taking up boxing instead of sprinting. The pugilists are actually the females, spurning the advances of amorous males by boxing their prospective partners. With their activity much more noticeable before the grass and crops have grown up to their full height, it is not surprising that the “mad March hare” has come to have such a strong connection with the spring. The pagan festival of the spring equinox took its name from the Teutonic goddess of the dawn, Eostre, whose sacred animal was the hare. Despite rumours to the contrary, the Easter Bunny who will be visiting us later in the spring is not a rabbit but a hare.


Changes in agriculture have seen a dramatic decline in hare numbers. The best places to look are open grassy or arable fields, particularly near to woodland fringes or decent hedgerows where hares can find shelter. Get up early to increase your chances of finding a boxing match, and stay down wind to avoid your scent giving you away. Leave the dog at home!

If you can’t get to the special places listed below…

Don’t worry; the Easter Bunny will come to you! Just don’t eat all that chocolate at once…


Woodside Farm, Derbyshire



Spring (March/April)

Pen poetry among daffodils

The sight of a golden host of daffodils is enough to brighten up the gloomiest of spring days.

In early spring, towards the end of March and into April, head to the few remaining woods and meadows where hosts of wild daffodils grow in wild profusion. Much more delicate and understated than their brash cultivated cousins, these wild flowers are the forgotten champions of a woodland in spring. Also known as the Lent lily, since it often blooms over the Lent period. Our native wild daffodil is found scattered across the west of England and (of course) in Wales. Several Wildlife Trusts care for nature reserves where wild daffodils grow.


For this one, go it alone. Pick a sunny day and spend some time like Wordsworth, ‘in pensive mood’ amongst the ‘jocund company’ of the flowers. Enjoy your ‘bliss of solitude’ and ‘dance with the daffodils’. Go on, no one’s looking…

If you can’t get to the special places listed below…

Yellow is the colour of early spring. You may not have wild daffodils growing near you, but look out for other yellow flowers glowing on the woodland floor: lesser celandine, coltsfoot, primrose and cowslips will all be in flower in March, a vital source of nectar for early bumblebees.


Derwentside, Derbyshire 
Lea Wood, Derbyshire



Spring (April/May)

Go spotting early orchids

Spikes of purple with spotted leaves adorn our spring grasslands and woods.

Orchids have a glamour and appeal all of their own, a touch of the tropical in the English countryside. Of the 50 or so species that are native to the UK, some are our most sought after rarities, found only in a select handful of special places. But others are still common and widespread, if only we knew where (and most importantly, when) to look for them.

As its name suggests, the spring flowering of the early purple orchid heralds the start of the orchid season. From April through to the end of June, the lush carmine purple flowers and broad, dark-spotted leaves of the early purple orchid are a feature of sunny ancient woodlands (often flowering amongst the carpets of bluebells), limestone dales and chalk grasslands, widely distributed from the Channel Islands to the isle of Unst and most places in between.

Pollination is carried out by the buff-tailed bumble: once it is complete, the flowers start to smell like territorial tom cats!


Take your camera: orchids can be very photogenic subjects.

With the help of the weather forecast, do your best to dodge those April showers. But the British spring is as it is, so maybe it’s best to take an umbrella, just in case.

If you can’t get to the special places listed below…

You might be under the impression that orchids are a rarity, only to be found in a select handful of secret spots. While this may be true of some species, there are plenty of common and widespread species that can be found on road verges, in woodlands and marshes, on coastal clifftops, sand dunes or even popping up in garden lawns. You just need to get out there and look.


For what must count as one of the finest shows of early purple orchids, why not visit the limestone dales along the Wye valley in Derbyshire where it flowers in large numbers amongst the carpets of cowslips.

Chee Dale

Miller's Dale

Priestcliffe Lees



Spring (March/June)

Get sent packing by grouse

Red grouse are setting up their territories in the uplands, and can get carried away when chasing off their rivals.

“Go back, go back, go back” yells a belligerent red grouse from a small hummock of heather. Just the size of a plump partridge, a deep chestnut-brown in colour with a dazzling bright red eye brow, the male red grouse is occupied with setting up his territory. And a territorial red grouse is a force to be reckoned with, especially when he sees red.

That flash of red above his eye is a sign of how fit a male he is, and how good a partner he will make to a female. The bigger and brighter the red, the better the male. The arrival of a bigger flash of red on his territory is seen as a threat, to be chased away: even if that red flash is your red coat! Stroppy male grouse have even been known to react angrily to a red car parking nearby, while the females quietly go about their business.

The boisterous ‘famous’ grouse is found on moorland in northern England, Wales and Scotland, as well as in Ireland… and nowhere else in the world! He may seem angry, but the red grouse is a very special bird and we should be sure to take care of him.


Not all grouse are as brave as others. Most red grouse will fly away if disturbed, whirring wings skimming them low and fast over the heather. And especially at this time of year, keep dogs on a lead when there are ground nesting birds about and stick to the footpaths.

If you can’t get to the special places listed below…

Red grouse isn’t the only grouse in Britain. The handsome black grouse is famous for its lekking behaviour, where several males gather together to fight over the attentions of the females. These leks are now few and far between, and very easy to disturb, but Durham Wildlife Trust has some wonderful videos of black grouse lekking on its YouTube channel as well as at their website.


Ladybower Wood, Derbyshire 



Spring (May/June)

Gape at hunting hobbies

Look skyward over reedbeds and wetlands where this handsome falcon gorges on dragonflies.

Amongst the many migrants returning from their winter in warmer climes, the late spring sees the return of the elegant hobby to our skies. A sleek little falcon, the hobby is dark, slate-grey above, with a bold black moustache, white cheeks, streaky underparts and a surprising pair of gingery red ‘pyjamas’. Having flown all the way back from sub-Saharan Africa, this master of the air has one thing on his mind… food! And for a hobby, there are few more tasty snacks than a damselfly.

The end of spring sees the emergence of large numbers of damselflies and dragonflies from our gravel pits, lakes and reedbeds, and these are the perfect portion size for a hobby. With aerodynamic, swept-back wings and a narrow tail, the hobby has both speed and manoeuvrability, enabling him to not only chase and catch his prey, sometimes reaching out and snatching a damselfly from the sky almost as an afterthought, but also to eat it on the wing. A master at work.


Springtime in a wetland is an exciting time. There will be cuckoos calling, terns flicking over the open water, maybe a little egret hunting quietly in the shallows, or the ‘plop’ of a water vole in the nearby ditch. Bring a pair of binoculars and a packed lunch, and make a day of it. For the hobbies, things won’t get going until later in the day: things need to have warmed up enough for the dragonflies and damselflies, the hobby’s main food, to have taken to the wing.

If you can’t get to the special places listed below…

To find out more about our most elegant of falcons, you could do worse than reading “The Hobby” by Anthony Chapman.


Willington Gravel Pits, Derbyshire



Spring (March/September)

Scour riverbanks for Ratty

Head to the riverbank to track down one of our most endangered and much-loved mammals, the water vole.

Better known as ‘Ratty’ in The Wind in the Willows, the water vole was once a common resident of rivers, streams, ditches, ponds, lakes and other wet places. Numbers dwindled after the introduction of mink and loss of habitat, and water voles have now disappeared from many former haunts.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of many volunteers and Wildlife Trusts, water voles are making a comeback in some areas. Look out for signs of their presence such as burrows in the riverbank, often with a nibbled 'lawn' of grass around the entrance. Water voles like to sit and eat in the same place, so piles of nibbled grass and stems may be found by the water's edge, showing a distinctive 45° angled cut at the ends. 'Latrines' of rounded, tic-tac sized and cigar-shaped droppings may also be spotted.

Active from April to September, spring is often the best time of year to see them because bankside vegetation is shorter so water voles are more easily seen. Be patient and you might see them foraging on the bank or hear the distinctive ‘plop’ of one dropping into the water.


As well as looking for the animal itself, you should also try looking for the tracks and signs of water voles. Burrows with grazed ‘lawns’ at their entrance, piles of nibbled stems and distinctive latrines are sure signs of water voles in the area.

As always, take care near the water’s edge.

If you can’t get to the special places listed below…

Find out more about The Wildlife Trusts’ work for water voles at our website and be sure to check out the “quick guide” to water voles at

And if you’ve not done so already, read the classic “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame.


Cromford Canal, Derbyshire


Grebes © Scott Jarvis, Brown Hare © Christine Gregory, Daffodils © Sue Crookes, Early purple orchid © Philip Precey, Red grouse © Mark Hamblin, Hobby © Steve Shaw, Water vole © Richard Chew.