Winter over – what now?
Winter over – what now?
A couple of weeks ago, travelling by train from Ilkley to Bradford through snow-shrouded fields and frozen woods, I wondered how any wildlife could possibly survive this prolonged ordeal. Of course, they can and they do. Look carefully, and signs were already visible. Scavenging gulls and crows circled the fields adding to the dourness of the scene, but a pair of collared doves snuggled together lovingly on a telegraph wire, three mute swans – an adult pair and their adolescent brown-patched offspring – had found an unfrozen reach of canal, and everywhere there were fresh molehills. One could picture the mole, tail erect and whiskers a-quiver, patrolling and extending her empire, warm and protected in the darkness.
It has been a brutal winter and there will inevitably be losers in the struggle to survive against the elements. Luckily wild creatures are resourceful. Many have learned to exploit us. Several people have told me of robins hovering like humming birds to snatch bites from hanging fat balls; we are currently being visited by a fine cock brambling which has learned to perch on the seed feeder; and a fellow naturalist proudly reported seeing a tiny goldcrest, a shy and secretive bird, pecking hungrily at her nut feeder. You may also have seen, on the local TV news, the song thrush that built an early nest in a Leeds traffic light; it looked rather smug, I thought, as it sat there intermittently bathed in amber light.
There have been several days this winter when, passing the hedgehog box I thoughtfully provided in a corner of the garden, I’ve thought enviously of hibernation as an attractive option. Although hedgehogs do wake up briefly if there’s a mild spell, it’s dangerous for them to do this too often – it uses up the precious brown fat which they laid down specifically for this kick-start process. Perhaps, then, the unremitting cold will have been beneficial. Badgers don’t hibernate, though they are less active in bad weather, living on reserves of fat laid down in the autumn. Their breeding cycle is interesting. Mating can take place whenever the sow is in season. The male woos her with a rich purring song so different from the excited yipping and whickering of the chases and play fights on summer evenings at the sett. Implantation of the embryo is then delayed till late December so that all cubs are born in around the end of February – that is, just about now!
Meanwhile, a friend reports seeing a lesser celandine in bloom – very early given the weather – and, on a walk through Strid Wood last week, I was delighted to hear robins and chaffinches singing lustily every fifty yards along my route and to see hazel catkins already lengthening and yellow with pollen. Beside the river, clumps of snowdrops, or snow-piercers to give them an earlier name, were in full bloom to welcome the approach of spring with a flourish.