Nature 2004 December

A Seasons Greetings to visitors from near and far

Human nature being what it is we become convinced that the wet and warm autumn we have had suggests a similarly mild winter is in store. But I predict this year will be harder than of recent with some more severe than usual cold snaps. We will have a greater chance of snow with a significant fall on or about Christmas Day looking more of a possibility than for some years now. Well you heard it here first!

Folklore also tells us that if the leaves of the trees did not fall before St Martin’s Day (11th November), which they did not this year, a cold winter may be expected for the next three months. Another quite recently discovered ‘predictor’ of oncoming winter weather conditions is surprisingly the ladybird, which traditionally hibernates in the crevices in bark and these days can be found often in large numbers in fence posts and the like. It is reported that there is a correlation between the height above the ground the ladybirds congregate in the cracks and the severity of the forthcoming winter. The higher they are to be found above ground level the more severe the winter will be. There’s no accepted scientific explanation for this so far but just to report that the ladybirds are taking to the high ground this year. As an aside, in the past people used to eat ladybirds to cure toothache! They believed that the oily yellow fluid in their bodies was a good pain killer.

December is a cruel month for our bird life. Starvation, disease and predation will take a heavy toll. More birds die this month than any other. It is for this very reason birds ‘over-produce’. Tits for example in a good year may have multiple broods, each of 8-10 youngsters. Keeping the bird table topped up, unfrozen water available and a patch of grass clear of snow, to make our ‘backyards’ a refuge for birds. But in case we forget, these refuges are a 20th century phenomenon. Most of the birds we see around here are émigrés from scrub and woodland such as Dunnocks and Tits or water edges such as the Pied Wagtail. What we now call ‘garden birds’ are a menagerie of species that has only come together since the end of the Second World War as suburban developments and domestic gardens sprung up. The Yuletide Robin, as mentioned in a previous article, followed the wild boar through the woods long before it accompanied man and no Victorian Christmas card would have had one perched on the handle of a gardeners’ spade.

The woodland that surrounds us is the place to venture out for a walk this month. Much of the activity now is to be found in wooded areas. With the leaves off the trees theses are the best opportunities to see our regular winter migrants, the redwings and fieldfares feeding on the good crop of ‘winter fruits’, hawthorn in particular. If you are lucky enough to come across a holly bush in fruit, that has escaped raiders in search of Christmas decoration, listen out for another arrival, the Mistle Thrush within its branches. Because it is one of the first birds to pair up and lay eggs, a bountiful supply of food at this time of year is vital to its successful breeding Its name derives from mistletoe which it also feeds on and was originally thought to be solely responsible for dispersing.

The tradition of using mistletoe, holly, ivy and others goes back to pre Christian times. The Romans collected evergreens such as these as well as box, conifers and rosemary which were often made into garlands to represent the continuance of life through an otherwise dark and lifeless period. Elsewhere there are connections with pagan and other festivals. Apparently in old Buckinghamshire lore felling a holly bush brings bad luck and can summon witches. Equally for Christians the holly leaf shape has come to symbolise the crown of thorns on Christ’s head as in the words of the hymn “The Holly and the Ivy”. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe has its origins in medieval plant magic. It was used to bring epileptics out of fits and ensure fertility. Much of this died out during the reign of Elizabeth and again in Cromwell’s time. However the revival of Druidism in 18th century brought yuletide logs and mistletoe to the fore because of their associations with ancient ritual. Their use as decoration was in fact officially banned by the Church until the 1960s. Christmas Trees reintroduced by Albert is another much older tradition that has been rejuvenated (see evergreens above).

The woods will be full of noise from barking muntjac and in January foxes are at their noisiest which during the mating season. Badgers, which only hibernate during the coldest of periods this far south venture out at dusk and can be heard snuffling in the undergrowth. One advantage of a snowfall close to woodland is the excellent opportunity to study animal tracks. Here are the tracks of our three largest mammals you may come across as visitors to your gardens.

Last time I started talking about the animals that invade our houses throughout the year. I heard back from one reader who had discovered a dark-coloured snake, which we decided must have been a grass snake that was preparing to hibernate in some loosened brickwork. Like the ladybird that hibernates another typical asylum seeker is the lacewing. These delicate-looking but extremely hardy insects are the unsung heroes of the gardener, being even more voracious pest disposal agents than even the ladybird. The adults that hatch in the late summer seek out such refuges as the gaps between the wood around windows frames. In the process they turn from their characteristic lime green to pale pink as there metabolism slows down to almost a full stop. They are one of the first of the over-wintering insects to break cover as they emerge from their winter quarters as soon as the first rays of weak sunlight break through in February.

Just time to suggest a book for Christmas. As birds have figured strongly this time I would recommend the New RSPB Birdfeeder Handbook by Robert Burton and Bill Oddie’s Introduction to Birdwatching. If you haven’t got a pair of binoculars in the house to get a closer look at the birds, treat yourself this Christmas!