The weekend brought bitter easterly winds and snow. We missed the heaviest falls in this part of the world but the snow dusted the landscape and I decided to walk up to Gull’s Isle. The strip of woodland bordering the path protected me from the wind and I could hear many songbirds were also finding shelter in the trees. I made out the calls of Blue and Great Tits, Robins, and scuttling in the undergrowth I saw several Blackbirds. There was fresh earth dug out of the sett by the stream, suggesting that some recent spring-cleaning had been going on. This activity may also suggest that mating has begun, the main time of the year for this is February with cubs following a gestation period of 50 days. It will be very interesting to watch in the early spring, with the first emergence of cubs to be expected in April. This was the only sett entrance where I observed any signs of disturbance, it may be that the Badger’s courtship patterns vary from sett to sett.
Icy cold water flowed down the hillside and the waterfall, in full spate, was a noisy swell. I went on into the main wood and was struck by the number of trees that have fallen, certainly some of them in the strong winds of the previous night. The scene made an uncomfortable resemblance to war paintings by Paul Nash, in which the land is reduced to tree stumps and craters. As one critic said of Nash’s 1918 painting, We Are Making a New World, ‘the tree stumps have an eerie human presence.’ I looked at the great trunks cast to the ground, torn from their remnant stumps and it brought the scene of a terrible battleground into my mind.
Booming in the high canopy the wind gusted violently, intimating how treacherous winter can be. I had been recently listening to a dirge, Sad February, sung by the Northumbrian folk group The Unthanks. The ballad tells the story of the sinking of the Lairdsfield at Teesmouth, with the loss of all on board. It begins with the ominous lines:
Cold February and all is not wellUnknown
There’s few who will sleep easy this night
Each verse opens by referring to the perilous elements in February, using adjectives like, ‘Black’, ‘cruel bitter’, ‘Dark’, or ‘grimy’; which are contrasted with ‘by the fireside and warm’. It builds up a relentlessly cruel image and the keening tone of the Unthank sisters makes their lament pierce the heart of the listener.
Hearing the wild wind in the wood you might easily feel that a great ship was being hurled through stormy waters. Coming out of the trees onto the field offered no escape though, for the wind blew the sleet in vicious waves across the open space. There was no protection and there was no creature abroad. That is, except for two other madcap hikers who I passed the time of day with, happily sharing our insanity. There is no doubt, this was a day better spent by a warm hearth with a glass of hot toddy.
The bitterly cold weather, which has created a permafrost this week making the ground hard for animals to excavate has encouraged birds into gardens. The other day two juvenile Goldcrests were foraging in our hedge. The young birds lack the characteristic gold mark on the head but can be recognised by their tiny size and these two seemed to be playing games with each other. I suppose it is one way to keep warm. We also had Long-tailed tits feeding on suet balls. These are gregarious birds that tend to feed in flocks, searching out good sources of food. Another bird who has taken to making visits is the Pied Wagtail. It is not an uncommon bird and in fact can often be seen in car parks, which seem to attract them, yet we have not had them in our garden before. The other day we counted three of them hopping around the lawn. Siskin numbers have also increased, again seeking seed when it is not plentiful in the countryside. These birds are additions to the regular visitors and with the commoner birds there have been greater numbers taking advantage of available supplies of food.