The English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is a quintessential sign of spring in British woodlands. In late spring, bluebells grow very close together in many parts of Pondhead, transforming the woodland floor into a dazzling carpet of shimmering blue. As Pondhead has not been grazed by commoners’ ponies and cattle for several centuries, bluebells have flourished.
Almost half the global population of these bluebells is found in the UK, with the species favouring ancient woodland. However they are under threat from changes in and loss of habitat together with hybridisation with more vigorous non native species such as the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) which is widely available in garden centres. The threat is increased when garden waste is fly-tipped in the countryside when any alien Spanish Bluebells it contains become established in their new surroundings, interbreeding with the native British bluebells and changing them forever. In the New Forest, the bye-laws prohibit this type of activity and the planting of non native bulbs. In the UK, the English Bluebell is also protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) which prohibits landowners from removing bluebells from their land for sale, and prohibits anyone from digging up bulbs from the countryside.
The English bluebell is easy to distinguish from its Spanish counterpart as on each flowering stem the flowers hang down to one side. Its pendent, strongly sweetly scented flowers are violet-blue and their rich nectar provides food for many butterflies and other insects. By contrast, Spanish Bluebells are generally larger with upright stems.
The English Bluebell is commonly found in British woodlands which have been in existence since at least 1600, and for this reason, are considered to be indicators of ancient woodland. They prefer semi shade and the dates on which the first bluebells open can vary by several weeks from year to year depending on the severity of the preceding winter/early spring. Generally, they appear late April/early May. When an area becomes more heavily shaded by the tree canopy above, bluebells can suffer as a result. Accordingly, the coppicing work we are undertaking in Pondhead should help the bluebells flourish.
Hardly any bluebells are found in those areas of the New Forest which are subject to heavy grazing by ponies, cattle and deer. In contrast, Pondhead has not been grazed for centuries and is surrounded by deer fencing, although it is inevitable that some of the smaller species of deer find their way in, the most unwelcome of which is the non native Muntjac. These small deer can cause problems as they are partial to the bluebell leaves and can cause great damage by eating them to the ground and by crushing them.
When the bluebells are at their peak, Pondhead looks at its best. Bluebell flowering is often difficult to predict – sometimes early and sometimes late. As a rough guide they should flower between late April early May.