The Big Sleep

Originally published March 2010

Hello everyone! Well the countryside is still in the grip of Winter… or is it? Have you noticed that after each of our sporadic days of snow and ice everything seems to be wanting to get going again with renewed vigour? The birds are busy rehearsing for our annual auditory treat, the dawn chorus. Buds are spreading throughout the trees like an arborial rash and the catkins on the Hazel have been around for weeks! Those seasonal pathfinders, Snowdrops, are vying for attention with more tardy species such as domesticated Narcissae and Tulips! It makes me want to tug on Mother Nature’s reins and slow her down to at least a trot.

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Now how many of you went out for a night walk in the ice and snow? I certainly did and as magical as it was I had to admit to being bitterly cold and welcomed a warming glass in front of the log burner on my return. No such luxury for nature’s denizens though so how, I hear you all cry, do they survive! Well in reality, of course, many don’t. Our winters act as a natural scourge of the weak and feeble thus maintaining genetic fitness. In other words ensuring that only the strongest are left to continue the survival of each species. Don’t ask me where this leaves me if suddenly bereft of the aforementioned glass and log burner! Birds die in their hundreds at this time of year. Natural selection has decreed that those species best suited for colder climes are large and generally well padded eg. Polar Bears, Blue Whales and Brian Blessed, whereas those in warmer areas are smaller and able to lose their body heat effectively eg. most rodents and of course our song birds. The problem arises when organisms have to deal with a climate ranging from frozen points to melting roads. In 1963 Wren, Kingfisher and Goldcrest populations fell by 85-90%. By the end of a prolonged Winter, even if a bird has not simply frozen to death, their fat levels are so low that unless they can find an easily accessible source of food they are simply too weak to keep going.

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Many species, especially insects, undergo a stage of dormancy during Winter that is surely the envy of Mankind. Ever since Rider Haggard described how She-who-must-be-obeyed bathed in a pillar of fire to maintain her perpetual youth, multi-nationals have been bombarding us with various creams and lotions to achieve the same effect; all because we are worth it of course! Insects however, just go into a state of suspended animation called Diapause during which they often arrest their development (stay young!) until environmental conditions are favourable again. What’s more they can undergo this process (depending on species) at any stage of their life cycle from egg, larvae (think of our dragonflies), pupae to adult.

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Where does this all happen? Long before enterprising companies started tying bundles of bamboo together and calling them Bug Houses, we had a feature throughout most of our countryside that suited the six legged ones very well. It is of course dead wood, an essential habitat for any woodland and reserve. The fact that our one time wooded land has lost most of its trees, both living and dead, means that insects, bats, birds and amphibians need as much help as we can give them. So I’m not knocking the bamboo houses, shame it’s not a native species though!

Talking of amphibians, what of them when the white cloak is sprawled across the land? If you have ever replaced a garden pond in the very early Spring before, in theory, the growing season starts, you may have unearthed some very dopey newts looking (and feeling) like little jelly babies. They bury themselves away under ground, beneath logs and in rotting stumps (of course!) for a season of metabolically challenged torpor. Frogs also overwinter in nooks and crannies but are capable of staying at the bottom of a pond and breathing through their skin. The inspiration of many a good science fiction story!

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So take a look at Lorna’s beautiful photos of our little reserve and imagine all that life tucked away just waiting for that seasonal starting gun! Now, where is my glass…

TQW ebookwindwillows“There was the noise of a bolt shot back, and the door opened a few inches, enough to show a long snout and a pair of sleepy blinking eyes.”
The Wind in the Willows

As usual put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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