Nature 2005 December

White Christmas?

The Hilltop Villages lived up to their reputation of providing us a wet autumn once again, with 71mm – just shy of 3 inches – of rain during October 28mm of which (1.1 inches) fell in one day, the 24th, the largest amount since October last year. At the time of writing, November has continued this trend with already over a couple of inches in the first two weeks. Meanwhile daily temperatures have held up well and provided a warm, even at times, balmy October. Once again we escaped a frost in October and anticipate subzero temperatures not arriving until the end of November or even December. The trees reflecting this retain their leaves the oaks and beeches, in particular, providing a feast of colour this autumn.

Looking ahead, the Met Office is advising that there are strong indications of a significantly colder but dry winter season especially in southern Britain. There is no suggestion that we are facing one as bad as 1947 or 1961/2 but one colder than any winter since 1995/6. Snow fell on Boxing Day last year but the odds have apparently shortened considerably already on their being a white Christmas this year.

One of the great unsung heroes of the plant world are lichens. A happy symbiotic partnership between one or more algae and a fungus. They are at their most splendid in December and January, with every colour you can imagine represented. Despite this, sadly they are at best overlooked and at worst often despised and condemned for encrusting garden trees and stonework. In severe cases they have been known even to ‘dissolve’ granite. In the past lichens were valued for providing dyes for cloth and even as an antiseptic for wounds, with reports of them being used during the first world war in the trenches as a poultice to prevent gangrene. We should celebrate their abundance in these parts as perhaps the best indication of how clear the air is and also indicating how old some of our woodland trees are. Many animals make good use of them from long-tailed tits furnishing their nests to snails grazing them and mites and other microscopic creatures making their home within a lichen ‘forest’. There are over 1700 species in the UK and probably only 6 or so botanists who can distinguish between them. However, help is at hand with an excellent interactive guide for all ages on the National History Museum website (www.nhm.ac.uk) search for lichens and follow the links. Try a trip armed with digital camera to one of the three graveyards in our midst and then compare what you find with those displayed on fallen logs or encrustations on older trees.

Owls are very vocal this time of year and due to prolonged periods of rain or snow become more frequent daytime flyers. We have five native species more often heard rather than seen. Barn owls which emit various sounds from a series of eerie screeches, to ‘wheezing and gurgling’ can be seen though at dusk hunting for small mammals or birds and have been spotted several times recently in Hawridge. The other owls, are the Little ‘keew-keew’, Long-eared ‘oo-oo-oo’, Short-eared, more usually silent and the Tawny ‘hooo-hoo-hooo’.

Other birds making their presence known all too well at this time of year are the Rooks, congregating in large numbers on the bare tops of trees. Their signature tune, a ‘kaah-kaah-kaah’ greets the early morning or evening walker who disturbs their roost with such a cacophony of sound which seems to increase in volume even long after you pass by. Meanwhile their larger relatives, the Carrion crow distinguished by their larger size and seen usually in ones, twos or threes become frequent visitors to the garden, squabbling over scraps. Like the Rooks they also descend on fields to feast on earthworms and insects foolhardy enough to emerge on the bare soil after rain.

Both these birds figured low-down in the top twenty garden visitors in the BBC Today programme / RSPB Garden Birdwatch survey last January when, in one weekend, 6.8 million bird sightings were recorded in 200 thousand, 1 hour observations. The top five nationally though were:- House sparrow; Starling; Blackbird; Blue tit; Blackbird and Greenfinch. This year’s survey is taking place on the weekend of 28th/ 29th January, further details on the BBC and RSPB websites. Compared to national statisitcs my own ratings each year consistently elevates the Robin, Dunnock and Collared dove and relegates the Starling and Greenfinch. Others comments on their own observations would be much appreciated.

This month star creepy-crawly is the woodlouse. Yet another unassuming hero squashed underfoot far too often. The primitive land invertebrates which crawled out of the sea would have looked much like woodlice which are in fact related to crabs and lobsters. Unlike insects with three pairs of legs, woodlice have seven pairs. There are at least 40 species in Britain. Around these parts the Pill bug is common which can roll into a ball when danger threatens. All woodlice are recyclers of one kind or another, breaking down organic matter. They are active all year but prefer the dark and require damp conditions such as leaf cover or under the compost heap. Young woodlice replicas of their parents take up to 2 years to grown into adults.

As always, no doubt, a considerable amount of mistletoe will be again hung above doorways this Christmas. Strange how comfortable we are mixing Pagan with Christian rituals. In medieval times mistletoe was burnt to enhance the fertility of the soil, used as a herbal cure-all and worn by women who believed it possessed aphrodisiac qualities. These customs all but died out during puritan times but were rekindled by the rise in the 17th century of the modern druidic cults and their dubious associated practices. Charles Dickens in Pickwick Papers encouraged Victorians to adopt a wholly more acceptable custom of hanging sprigs around their houses and stealing no more than a kiss beneath one. The demise of orchards in the country means that most mistletoe is nowadays imported from France. In Herefordshire, where it still flourishes on apples, hawthorn and lime trees, locals now propagate it but as is the case generally most occurrences are still down to the unconscious endeavours of the eponymous Mistle-thrush and other birds, which having fed on the berries uses rough bark to scrape the surplus gelatinous glue stuck to its beak and in so doing deposits the seed in a crevice.

Finally, I promised last time some suggestions of some more books for Christmas. David Attenborough is in his 50th year of broadcasting. His latest book to accompany the TV programme ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ is in the shops now. For those interested in Birds a treasure-trove of information and folklore is to be found in Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Rickard Mabey.