Originally published December 2015
Hello everyone! Here we are at the year’s swan song and, despite a relatively mild few weeks, winter is upon us. In terms of foretelling what kind of season we have ahead of us, Ma Nature has been giving us some fairly contradictory messages. For the past few months, avid weather prophets have been studying the migratory routes of birds, the height of wasps’ nests, the thickness of acorn cups, how shaggy their dog’s coats are, the number of Holly berries in the woods and some have even resorted to the long-range weather forecast!
As a nation we can come across as bordering on the obsessive when dealing with our most popular talking point. Our conversation often associates major events with the weather on the day, for example: the Queen’s Coronation, poor girl, it poured down! England World Cup final in 1966, phew, lucky the rain kept off. The Spanish Armada, nice refreshing breeze, get the washing on the line! The night shift on the evening of 15th October 1987, well it might get a tad blowy, but I doubt I will need a coat! Our early dependence on an agrarian lifestyle, at least until the noisy wheels of industry started turning, meant that the weather was a major influence on the way people lived their lives. As a result we have come to set great store in the signs and portents mentioned above (with the possible exception of the weather forecast!) as well as many others lost in the mists of time.
Clearly the science behind the myth is quite obvious in some cases. Migrating birds will notice those early signs of an easterly chill long before we do and will take flight accordingly. The early appearance of ducks and geese from colder climes leads us to conclude, justifiably, that inhospitable conditions just may follow in their wake. This is all very fine for birds who can cover vast distances when required to, but land-based animals have a harder time of it. Those animals that do not hibernate have their own ways of coping with the white mantle that covers the land during the winter months, although it is not always by choice.
The Stoat (Mustela erminea), changes the colour of its fur in the Northern parts of the country whether it wants to or not as the transformation is triggered by photoperiod and biochemical changes in the pituitary gland. This means that they are often left in the rather compromising situation of owning a completely white coat in areas where the snow is non-existent at the time.
I have watched an Ermine, as they are called when dressed for winter, bounding around in a green field in Scotland and, quick as it was, remained very conspicuous at a great distance. Unfortunately this has made it all too easy for the fur industry to capture and kill the animals just for use as a trim on ceremonial robes. I am a great believer in, most, traditions but the 50,000 Stoat pelts imported from Canada for the coronation of George VI in 1937 does seem grotesquely excessive and, hopefully, not deemed necessary in the future. In 2008 the Ermine population in parts of North Yorkshire kept their winter coats a lot longer than usual, fuelling speculation that temperature has a part to play in the process. That year Easter was marked by heavy snowfall and the Stoat became entrenched in the weather folk-lore in the county of the White Rose.
Every pine and fir and hemlock
Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
And the poorest twig on the elm-tree
Was ridged inch deep with pearl.
James Russell Lowell (1819-91)
It is more difficult to explain how many plants are believed to foretell a harsh winter. The Holly bushes in our little reserve are laden with red berries at present, and have been for many weeks now. The tradition of this being a sign of a harsh winter to come is actually built upon a pretty good record, despite the fact there is no real logic to it. The spring weather dictates the abundance of insects to pollinate the flowers which, in this case, is not beyond the realms of probability as it was a very mild winter. How much berry-ripening sunshine we had in the early autumn is a moot point. We shall see if the Holly rings true this year. If you do happen to believe it to be a botanical soothsayer, then judging from the Quarry Wood bushes, I hope your log piles are stacked high!
But give me holly, bold and jolly,
Honest, prickly, shining holly;
Pluck me holly leaf and berry
For the day when I make merry.
Christina Rossetti (1830-94)
Happy Christmas One and All, see you next year for more moths, fungi and fun in the woods!
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