During the brief let-up in the wintry weather last week, a distant memory popped into my mind. When my sister was about seven, her teacher asked the class to look out for signs of Spring so, that weekend, we set out across our local fields determined to find some. Of course that would be late March and, as decidedly amateur naturalists, our finds were predictable – lesser celandines in flower, horse chestnut sticky buds unfurling, perhaps even a blackbird’s nest in the hawthorn hedge. Now I am older I may be a little better informed but I’m also much more desperate for Spring so, once again, I set out to look for signs of seasonal change – this time in late January in Strid Woods.
Over-optimistic, it seemed at first. The woods were absolutely silent and the leafless trees filtered sunlight onto a mat of brown and grey – frozen earth and dead leaves. However, just opposite the islands upstream from the Cavendish Pavilion, there is a sheltered, south-facing bank, just the place to look. Here new leaves had already emerged from the stony ground: we recognised barren strawberry, woodruff and even tiny wood anemone and violet. Encouraged, we then noticed that the vivid mosses were not the only bright greens to interrupt that grey- brown carpet. No here were shiny-new tongues of hart’s tongue fern, tussocks of wood rush, and dog’s mercury straining to stand up after being crushed by the weight of the snow. Finally, where some hungry squirrel or rabbit had scraped at the soil, were a few exposed bluebell bulbs already beginning to shoot. Not exactly Spring but signs that, beneath our feet, change had already begun!
In fact, over the next two months these signs of change will proliferate and strengthen. One thing I like to try and track is how our common birds move from living in flocks, a well-tried winter strategy, to forming pairs. Our garden finches are still very much in the flocking stage chaffinches in bachelor gangs, goldfinches forming quarrelsome groups around the bird-feeder, but the dunnocks are already paired off and flirting, wing-trembling and tail twitching whenever there’s a glimpse of sunshine. Late one afternoon, we even heard a cock blackbird launch into song from his perch high in the oak. No doubt all these beginnings have now been put on hold by the return of the frost, but they are reminders that seasonal change is not a calendar date but a gradual process and one that’s underway all around us.
Meanwhile, Winter has its enchantments. At the end of my quest, I returned to our car, parked next to the Cavendish Pavilion, to find my husband watching a trio of roe deer as they slipped between the bare trees on the adjoining ridge. Only the flicker of their white rumps gave them away; their grey-brown coats merged perfectly into that background of earth and dead vegetation. People, dogs and cars passed just below them as they browsed, confident in their winter camouflage.