December 2010


Wednesday – Eaton Hill – Yesterday we awoke to a blanket of snow a couple of inches thick. Today there has been some thawing but much is frozen and everywhere is icy. Redwings gather at the tops of trees on the Grange. More are down the rough meadows across the River Lugg. Along the Lugg towards Eaton Bridge. Blackbirds are in the Hawthorns but flighty. A Common Buzzard sits on a low branch examining the undergrowth below. It moves downstream several times at Maddy’s approach then decides she is too much of a disturbance and heads across the woods. On Eaton Hill the long hedge beside the sunken lane is being cut and thinned by a chainsaw wielding man. The big field is snow-covered with maize stalks rising like a giant bristle. Rabbit tracks are abundant. Down the track to Brightwells. The Cogwell Brook is still frozen on top. A pair of Mute Swans, an adult and a juvenile, land on the water at the confluence.

Saturday – Leominster – The temperature has finally risen above freezing. A couple of nights’ ago it had fallen below -10°C. The snow has turned to rain. At least ten Blackbirds flew up from the piles of apples laying in the garden. The Grange is still covered with snow, but now wet, soft snow unlike the crisp blanket of a few days ago. This does not stop Maddy sliding through it as she chases and traps her football. It is very misty. House Sparrows chatter in the hedge by the recreation ground. Along the Millennium Park a fresh molehill has been thrust through the snow. In the churchyard, Chaffinches and tits are feeding energetically, desperate to ensure they have enough calories to see them through the night. Back by Grange House a Nuthatch is calling from one of the tall trees but remains hidden from my view. A flock of more than seventy feral pigeons is flying over the High Street, to and fro before settling on a roof.

Monday – Mortimer Forest – A steady drive up through Luston, Orleton and Richards Castle as the area is fogbound. The hedgerows and trees are white with hoarfrost. Up from the Black Pool car park and after a short distance the sun shines brightly. Where the trees are in the sun the frost has disappeared, however the ground is still frozen and tiny ice crystals cover all. The walk up to Climbing Jack Common is quiet, only my crunching boots to be heard. It is said that the 17th century owner of Haye Park, James Walter, leased a plot to a local man in 1601. On the plot was CleeClimber’s Oak. This was rendered as Climber’s Ake in the lease, an example of how phonetic spelling of the local accent was often used at the time. Over time, the name became Climbing Jack. An occasional Carrion Crow glides overhead. By the time I reach High Vinnalls I am hot and sweating under the intense sun. All around the lower ground is covered in a sea of mist. Hills are islands. A fleet of ships in the distance with funnels pouring out white smoke are, of course, the cooling towers of a power station, probably that at Ironbridge. Another power station is on the eastern horizon, maybe at Stourbridge. The view makes me wonder if this is what it will look like when the great polar icecaps melt and the world floods. All signs of man have disappeared apart from the Hoarfrostvillage of Clee which is bathed in sunshine on the side of Titterstone Clee. It is a reversal of the normal situation wherein Clee is hidden in low cloud whilst the lowlands have the sun.

Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – Everything is white with frost. It is bitterly cold despite the clear blue sky and blazing sun. A dog is running through the orchard which is on the other side of a large hedgerow. Winter thrushes that have been feeding on fallen apples fly up into the tall bushes and trees. Both Redwings and Fieldfares are calling alarms as they realise Maddy and I am below them and they head off in all directions. Large areas of lakes are frozen and deserted. There is an area of open water in front of the hide. Mallard, Wigeon, Coot, Goldeneye, Mute Swans, Pochard and Teal are all swimming around the crowded oasis. Coot with feet like a circus clown walk across the ice. A dog spooks a Common Pheasant which flies across to the island. A bush has heart-shaped leaves that have a fringe of rime looking like earrings.

Thursday – Bodenham Lakes – Less cold but ground and lakes still frozen. The hoarfrost which draped everything just a couple of days ago has vanished. Winter thrushes are still numerous. The only open water is the patch in front of the hide and it is crowded with Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Coot and Mute Swans. A Water Rail runs out of Heronthe reed bed in front of the hide and swims across the patch of open water. It is harassed by Coots as it swims. On reaching the ice near the island it runs for the trees and disappears within. A Dabchick is lurking near the reeds. Many of the Mallard are cleaning their plumage vigorously, but one pair have other things on their mind. The drake is bobbing his head in front of the duck before mounting her and holding her under water with his bill. It is all over in a trice, then he swims around her with his neck outstretched just above the water. She shakes and swims off as if nothing has occurred. A large flock of Canada Geese are grazing the field beyond the lake. A Grey Heron preens on the edge of the spit. A line of Coot head for the bank to graze on the grass that has emerged from the snow and ice in the bright sun. Back at the orchard a large flock of Redwings, Fieldfares, Blackbirds and a couple of Chaffinches fly up from feasting on fallen apples.

Friday – Croft Ambrey – It is milder, that is to say, just above freezing. The ground is no less treacherous as the ice is now wet and slick. A Jay flies across the long avenue to Croft Castle. Two Common Buzzards rise from the car park and cross low in front of me. Down to Fish Pool Valley where a couple of ponds are ice free and the others iced over, the extent of which seems to depend on the number of trees surrounding the pool. Coal Tits bounce through the trees. A Blackbird alarms up in the woods. Up the valley between Lyngham Vallets and Bircher Common. It is very quiet here, just the occasional squeak of a Blue Tit. Flashes of bouncing white rumps through the trees marks the passing of a couple of Fallow Deer. A Great Spotted Woodpecker chips, a Nuthatch yips. Along the top of Leinthall Common. Machinery clanks and growls in the quarry. Pheasants and Carrion Crows croak in the fields below. A small group of Bullfinches flies along the path, white rumps flashing, meeping quietly. The hills are mainly clear of snow but a thin layer covers the valley fields. A strong breeze has arisen. Sheep have clearly sheltered under a pair of Ash trees on the edge of the hill fort, underfoot is a thick layer of droppings. The trees do not look like they would have provided much protection from the snow but any port in a storm! Back down to the castle. A young dog, apparently from the farm, wants to play with Maddy, she is not interested and makes it very clear, although this does little to puncture the pup’s enthusiasm.

Saturday – Leominster – Christmas is coming, so are the fairs. A Victorian fair occupies Broad Street with more stalls mingling with the Farmers’ Market in Corn Square. Everyone dresses in Victorian dress. The Town Crier is from Bromyard as sadly the Leominster crier died recently. The stalls have the usual array of stuff ranging from the expensive hand made or carved to cheap trinkets. A local Morris is dancing in Broad Street. They wear jackets made of curtain material, top hats adorned with pheasants’ feathers and have blackened faces. In truth the dancing is a break between drinking in the Grapes. However, their turn in the street leaves the pub with enough room for us to squeeze in and grab a pint. Maddy behaves impeccably, a great difference to her first visit when she barked at everyone and attacked Phil, the landlord!

Monday – Bringewood – Into Hazel Copse in the Mortimer Forest. This hill is Bringewood, one of the great Saxon Southhunting forests of the area. It is overcast and quite dark. There is a threat of rain or even snow. A large flock of tits and Goldcrests is noisily moving to and fro across the track between the tall conifers. Rooks can be heard calling below on Monstay Rough. I reverse my normal route and climb up the bank and follow the path up through the trees. The density of evergreens maintains a micro-climate in here and fungi are still growing although the rest of the area had been frozen for days on end before the weekend thaw. Up near the top of the hill, by the fields of Gorsty, another tree has fallen and now three lay against each other forming a triangle of trunks. From the triangulation point the valleys below are grey with mist although it is thinner than it has been of late. White columns of cloud rise up the Shropshire Hills. A pale gold glow lies along the southern horizon. Back down a muddy track and onto the forestry road. Crossbills are calling in the trees but remain hidden. On the way back home a small flock of less than a dozen Lapwings flap overhead. They seem quite uncommon around here, this being the first I have seen this winter.

Home – Weirdly the old hens have come back into lay. Everyone knows that hens lay during the long days of summer and stop when the short winter days arrive – except no-one seems to have told my old girls who have laid hardly an egg between them all summer but are now becoming regular. The new hens are still producing an egg each most days. I take them out some scraps. A Grey Heron