The Dells Come Alive in Spring

Edinburgh is a city blessed with a lot of green spaces that are home to an impressive array of wildlife. One of my favourites is Colinton and Craiglockart Dell which stretches alongside the Water of Leith from Slateford to Colinton.

I walk through this area every week, as a volunteer with the Water of Leith Conservation Trust who do a wonderful job in looking after the river. Because I’m there so often, I get to see the area in all its seasonal variations.

I love the Dells at all times of the year but Spring is when they really come alive. The wooded valleys echo with birdsong. Early in the season blackbirds, song thrushes, wrens, robins and chaffinches dominate the airwaves. Later on, the migrants start coming back to add their voices to the choir – chiffchaffs calling out their name from late March and blackcaps singing their beautiful warbles from mid-April. In more open areas you can sometimes hear willow warblers and whitethroats, both species that usually stay away from the more densely wooded areas. There’s even a bird that sings from the river, the dipper, which looks like a giant wren wearing a white bib and sings from the rocks in the water.

At this time of year, you may be lucky to see birds feeding their young. Dippers breed very early and take their young out onto the river well before any other young birds are to be seen. Later in the season you may see a family of bullfinches in the trees or a blackbird feeding its young on one of the open areas of grass. If you’re very lucky you may see the kingfisher family – apparently these birds are very regular in their habits, so it may just be a case of working out the best time and the best viewing point! Grey herons can sometimes be seen fishing the river in the spring or flying over from their nesting sites. Herons nest in the tops of trees in colonies that can be quiet a way from the water. I have to admit I don’t know where the Dells herons nest, though there is a heronry near Duddingston Loch. Both grey herons and kingfishers were badly affected by recent harsh winters and aren’t as common as they were a few years ago.

Also on the wing, several species of butterflies can be seen in the Dells. I’ve already this year seen a comma and a peacock on the field where common spotted orchids bloom in summer. I’ve also seen orange tips and small tortoiseshells in previous years.

While the birds sing and butterflies bask, the trees put out their leaves and flowers start to bloom. In early Spring, the undergrowth in the Dells is a mass of wild garlic and wild leeks, that fill the air with their scent of garlic and onions, even before they come into bloom! Bluebells seem to have been increasing in the Dells over recent years. You can see plenty of them, not in just traditional blue but also in white and shades of lilac. These coloured bluebells are hybrids between the native British bluebell and the Spanish variety, there are concerns that these plants may eventually lead to the extinction of our native species, but they are very pretty.

Other spring flowers to look out for in the undergrowth include wood anemone and wood sorrel as well as lesser celandines, crocuses, daffodils and sometimes primroses.

Spring is the best time for identifying trees as their leaves and in many cases flowers come out. The most impressive flowering trees are cherry trees, apple trees and horse chestnuts. The Norway maple is one of my favourite trees at this time of year with its bright green leaves and lovely yellow flowers. In later spring the hawthorns flower too, with their distinctive scent. And talking of distinctive scents, gorse blooms in some areas of the Dells, smelling of coconut.

The Dells are full of history, notably the remains of old mills that were once central to Edinburgh’s industry, and the Ladies Grottos that were built in the 1750s as places for ladies to rest while the gentlemen went hunting. One of these grottos is ideally placed overlooking a tributary to the main river, making it a perfect bird hide!

You may not be surprised to learn that some of the trees are historical too. The area is categorised as ancient woodland, which means the land has been continuously wooded since 1750. This doesn’t mean however that the trees are that old and many of them are considerably younger. One species shares a very close history with the mills. The hornbeam is native to southern England and not to Scotland. These trees were planted in the Dells to supply wood for construction uses in the mills.

To find out more about the bird species mentioned in the article, please visit the RSPB online bird guide

To find out more about the wild flowers, trees and shrubs mentioned in this article, please visit the British Wildflowers website:

To find out more about the butterflies mentioned in this article, please visit the British Butterflies website:

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