Outside in January
It’s been a temperature roller-coaster so far this winter: ice and snow before Christmas, mild over the Bank Holiday and back to icy winds and frozen fields. As I look out now, everywhere is cloudless but a kind of washed-out white and the whole garden is bleached by frost. My blackbird friend, Mr Raisins, not only comes for breakfast but is an anxious presence outside the back door at lunch and tea times. How do our wild neighbours survive in these conditions: the world outside dead or at least dormant?
Far from it. This is an exciting and active time for many species. Notice the molehills polka-dotting local pastures. They show up well against the frosty grass but they also stand out because this is new, freshly flung-out earth. This seems to be the season when moles decide to renovate and extend existing premises. I don’t fully understand why but I love to look at all the groups of spoil heaps as you can see the extent, pattern and location of each animal’s domain. They are carefully spaced. Despite what you read in The Wind in the Willows, moles are not sociable creatures!
It’s a thrilling time for foxes too. January sees the peak of their mating season and, if you are out late or don’t sleep well, you may hear their calls, rapid staccato barking, yapping and yelping or the female’s eerie screech. Once in coitus the dog fox and vixen can remain coupled for as long as 90 minutes. Cubs will be born 52-53 days later and should have reached weaning point by the time the countryside is well supplied with young rabbits.
And what about voles, the prolific breeders, the favourite snack of predators from foxes to buzzards? They remain active throughout the winter moving around along long shallow tunnels clearly visible from above. I remember a friend sourly pointing out the raised profile snaking across the edge of his lawn straight into the vegetable garden. A covering of snow is a blessing to voles as they can still get about below its insulating blanket. Another gardener friend ruefully showed me what should have been a bumper crop of swedes, each hollowed out like a Halloween lantern, the indentations of little sharp teeth clearly visible inside.
On a still night tawny owls can detect the voles moving under the snow – and pounce. The owls need to feed up too as they are early breeders; you can hear their territorial calls now, even in the town centre.