Monday, 19 December 2011

A brief winter hibernation

It's just a few days before Christmas, and you may have noticed that things are slowing down a bit on the blogging front here. I'm afraid the usual peri-festive preparations are taking their toll, so it's probably better for everyone if I admit now that I'm unlikely to be writing any more until the schools go back on 9 January 2012.

If you're reading this, or have been reading any of my bloggings (is that the right word?) over the last few months, my heartfelt thanks. I do hope you've enjoyed them, that they've provided some food for thought, and that you'll take another look after 9 January, when I will be putting virtual pen to virtual paper again. There seems to have been an awful lot of depressing news about the environment and biodiversity in 2011 - let's hope 2012 will be the year when the natural world gets the attention, and the action, that it so badly needs.

Here's to a green Christmas and a wild 2012!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A little light relief

It's a classic British winter's day here. Not one of those snow-bound, sapphire-domed, chocolate box days of last winter - they were an anomaly. But one of the leaden-skied, howling wind, driving-rained days of most of the winters I can ever remember. A day to hunker down somewhere warm and batten down the hatches. Except I had promised to walk a friend's dog.

Even the ubiquitous jackdaws and crows had gone to ground when I went out this afternoon - though Jack, the springer spaniel I was walking, managed to flush a couple of disgruntled male goosanders who had taken refuge in the lee of the river bank. The wind was so strong that it was pushing the water back upstream, and white-topped wavelets scudded along against the flow. The goosanders meanwhile fought against the wind in the other direction, struggling to get away despite their slim, streamlined bodies. I'd tugged my hood way down over my face to keep out the stinging rain, so never saw where they ended up.

It's on days like this that I'm grateful for the existence of gorse - for when gorse is not in flower kissing is not in season. In the past gorse was used for all sorts of utilitarian things - brooms, thatch, fires, dyes. Now it's a plant of scrub and waste places, unremarkable and unremarked. But walking back from Dunblane this morning I passed several scraggy grey-green bushes of the stuff - all illuminating the monochrome day with their golden-yellow, fairy-light flowers. No coconut smell this time of year of course - you need warmth and dry days for that - but still so welcome. A tonic in these, the darkest days of winter.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Nice weather for ducks

Rushy marshland now frames the river north of the village, where there are usually grazing meadows. Weeks of rain and snow, gales and floods have drowned the land. Every fresh downpour refills the usually temporary pools, and damp, deep-green flushes are now wide, rush-lined lochans.

It was, as they say, nice weather for ducks again this morning, with heavy overnight rain and lowering clouds stalling the dawn until nearly 9am. And the ducks have proved it by taking up residence, albeit temporarily, in one of the new ponds-that-used-to-be-field. Today I counted eight teal and four mallard, gleefully gliding about on the mirror-still water, whistling and quacking like a pack of noisy children on an icy pond. But the shy, dainty teal are masters of concealment, and as soon as they clocked me they gracefully danced for cover behind the clumps of soft rush that fringe the pools.

Before they melted into the tawny background I had a chance to look at them through my binoculars. They are tiny in comparison with the mallard - about half the size - and are our smallest duck. I was too far away (or too short-sighted) to make out their Zorro-like green eye mask, but the buttery yellow diamond at the base of their tails shone out unmistakeably in the low winter sunshine.

Most of the teal we see at this time of year are refugees from Iceland and northern Europe. In winter teal feed mostly on grass seeds, often in shallow pools and lakes, so it's not surprising that they move south to avoid the freezing weather that would lock up their food source. Some do stay here all year round, breeding in wild, undisturbed wetlands. Scotland is home to about 2000 pairs, at the last count. At present they're not doing too badly; though hotter, drier summers, predicted through climate change, and losses of wetland habitat through agricultural intensification, could jeopardise that. If  we want to hold on to these lovely, ballerina birds we need to make sure it continues to be nice weather for ducks.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Where the wild things are

We woke to -5C this morning. As soon as a pale line to the south, above the bulk of the Ochil Hills, made it light enough to see I went out to feed the hens. I took a bucket of steaming water with me - their drinkers would be frozen solid. I was bashing noisily at the inch-thick ice when I heard the sound of a fleet of toy bicycles coming towards me, the riders gleefully honking their rubber horns. I stopped and looked up in time to see a squadron of about thirty whooper swans flying low over the roofs of the village. They kept in perfect V formation, ice-white against the dawn-grey sky, though black tipped at beak and feet.

It was the perfect day to see these harbingers of Arctic weather. Yesterday's snow is still clinging to every branch and stem here. Sixteen thousand whooper swans arrive in the UK each autumn, most of them from Iceland - truly wild swans bringing a taste of the tundra in their wake. They head south when their summer lakes and pools begin to freeze over for the winter. Their numbers peak at about four thousand in Scotland in early winter, before some continue further south to feast on the rich arable pickings of East Anglia and the West Country. Since the 1940s they've developed a taste for sugar beet and stubble fields, and latterly oil seed rape, to supplement the sometimes scarcer aquatic vegetation they used to rely on.

Now I often see large flocks of whoopers grazing on the Carse of Stirling, wandering among the stubble like feathered sheep. It seems strange to see these icons of wilderness in such domestic settings as villages and fields. But isn't it good to think that here is where at least some of the wild things are.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Advent of snow

'And some to view the winter weathers,
Climb up the window seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
In fancy's infant ecstasy,
Laughing with superstitious love,
O'er visions wild that youth supplyes,
Of people pulling geese above,
And keeping Christmas in the skies.'
John Clare, from The Shepherd's Calendar

The snow arrived this weekend. Someone up there must have read my blog about the unseasonal greenery and decided to put things right. Don't know where they got the geese from this early in December.

Anyway, it gave me an excuse to put in my favourite snow description. I discovered it when a friend wrote it on a Christmas card he sent a few years ago. Now whenever it snows I imagine those Georgian farmers' wives hunched over a roaring fire, frantically plucking their fat farmhouse geese somewhere in the clouds. Which is strange really, as I always feel that snow brings not that sense of bucolic contentment, but a sense of unpredicatable wildness.

In fact after nearly three months of ice and feet-deep snow last winter I vowed I never wanted to see the stuff again. But a walk in the ankle-deep, powder-light snow in the woods above Dunblane this morning has cured me. After more early morning flurries the sky cleared, the air was gin-clear, and the sun etched the trees as black silhouettes against the blue-washed sky. In the town the rooks seemed especially vocal, perched in the crowns of the snow-spattered trees yelling complaints at the passers-by. Perhaps they remembered the privations of last year's freeze better than I.

But my friend and I headed out up the road to the hills. In 1715 these moors were carpetted with the dead of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, now much of the hillside is shrouded with conifers. Here the snow was deeper, the sunlight sharper, and the views of the mountains to the north and south spectacular. I am hooked again.

The tracks through the trees were wide and sun-filled. We'd come to walk Jake, my friend's handsome, rangy, black-and-white collie. As he wove in and out of the dark trees he looked almost wolf-like, and I imagined how it would feel if there were really wolves lurking in the forest. So much of our landscape has been tamed since the last wolf was killed in Scotland in 1680, and their reintroduction would be hugely controversial. But I can't help thinking that bringing back our top predator, restoring our sense that something in the wild is bigger and stronger than us (even if the chance of an actual wolf attack is minuscule), would help us all get back in contact with the natural world and our place in it. Let's hope we'll find out one day soon.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Does the World needs natural buddies?

The first day of December. Yet instead of the usual sepia-dominated winter palette, everything here is still very much in glorious Technicolor.

The warm, wet autumn, and the lack of frosts, have allowed many plants to keep living and growing well beyond their usual span. In the woodland by the river to the south of the village the young, fresh leaves of violet, water avens and ferns are bright green. They bask in the low, buttery sunlight now that the birch and hawthorns above them have lost their leaves. A small, still-copper-leaved beech tree is growing on the steep cliffs of the opposite bank like an outstretched hand. It catches a stray beam of sun and flames out against the dark grey rocks as I walk by. In the River Field there are still some meadow buttercups in flower. Some of their petals are pale and translucent where the morning's light frost has caught them, but most still have that solid, waxy, bright yellow shine of children's crayons. As usual I feel very lucky to be able to step out of my house to see all this.

It wasn't so glorious earlier this morning, when a series of cold, squally showers strafed the village on their way east. I sat inside reading an interview with David Attenborough in The Times. It was sobering stuff, and reminded me that not many are as lucky as I am.

'We have lost all touch with nature, says Attenborough', said the headline. This wasn't quite accurate. What Attenborough said was that now, according to UN figures, over 50% of us live in urban environments. That means that over 50% of the Earth's population 'is to some extent out of touch with the natural world'. He went on to comment that unless action is taken to help bring people back into some kind of contact with nature (in his case through making natural history programmes) we have little chance of convincing people - or politicians - to take action to protect it.

I was thinking about this on my walk. If 50% live in urban environments, that still leaves 50% in the countryside. What if everyone in the city had a virtual, rural (or at least nature-savvy) 'buddy' to communicate with, to tell them what was going on in the natural world? With all the social media at our disposal surely it's not beyond the bounds of possibility - a tweet, a Facebook page, a LinkedIn network? If every one of the million RSPB members, for example, agreed to put something on Twitter once a week - how many people would that connect with wildlife? Do you think it would work? Would you give it a try?