Ben's Nature Diary
PUBLISHED: 07:14 20 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:19 20 February 2013
As a child, there were few more inspiring books in my collection than Kenneth Grahame's iconic classic, The Wind in the Willows...
AS a child, there were few more inspiring books in my collection than Kenneth Grahames iconic classic, The Wind in the Willows. I think it was the descriptions of water, field, air and wood that seduced me most, relating each, as I was able to do, to wild places nearby.
Of course it helped that I was besotted with the wildlife to be found in my local rivers, fields and woods, many being the characters found in the book. Through Grahames magical storytelling techniques and my own curiosity in the real world, the creatures in this beloved book were brought to life.
Today, as in my childhood, I can visit Shropshires very own Wild Wood, Toad Hall and the River. Although Mr Toad will be safely tucked up for Winter (probably the best place for him), the Mole, the Otter and the Badger can still be seen on milder days, for they do not hibernate; they simply reduce their activities and sit out most of the cold period underground, mainly relying on their fat reserves to tide them over until spring.
Ratty will also make an appearance in December if his beloved river has not frozen over.
Ratty, who has nothing to do with a rat whatsoever and is in fact a water vole, is in serious decline across the UK. However a lot of work is being done to save these delightful little creatures from habitat loss and the rancorous American Mink. The best place to see them in Shropshire is Greenfields nature reserve near Whitchurch. You wont see Ratty rowing down the stream, but you may hear the plop of his form as he dives for cover beneath the surface.
It used to be thought that the Badger hibernated through the winter months, adding its name to the Hedgehog and Dormouse as the three British mammals to truly do so. But in fact, as The Wind in the Willows points out, Mr Badger simply puts his feet up and retires to his underground labyrinthine sett; partly to sleep and party to potter about somnolently ensuring his walls are in good order and there are no drafts to interrupt his cosy and unperturbed existence. He will occasionally break surface, but to stand a chance of seeing him in December, youll need to wait until the thermometer tops at least 10 degrees. Happily this is also around the mark at which we as humans start to feel comfortable again too!
At the risk of going off on an anthropomorphic rant, lets turn our back on Ratty and co and resort to those animals that light up the dullest winter day for all of us, birds. December in Shropshire may feel like a bleak time, but it is the best time to see birds in the garden. Many so called garden birds rely on our offerings of seeds, nuts and fat balls and now is the time to make sure you have them dotted around the garden so as to benefit as many different species as possible. Even if you do not have a garden, window feeders work well and offer an unparalleled view, once the birds get used to their new drive-in service.
December sees the possibility to spot all six of the British thrush species and one in particular is rather fitting. Thrushes have an endearing way of wiping their beaks after eating a meal. You will often see blackbirds cleaning themselves after finding a particularly juicy worm or slug. However if you happen to be a mistle thrush, then your favourite food, mistletoe, is now at its prime. When these birds eat the sticky white berries, they too wipe their beaks over the nearest bit of rough ground, the bark of the tree; and in doing so perfectly deposit the seeds of this parasitic plant to once more grace the winter branches above us. Whether we sneak a kiss under them or not is no concern of the thrushs.
Along with our resident blackbirds, mistle and song thrushes, the two migrants, the fieldfare and redwingm also make an appearance now. They are truly striking birds and can be seen on any roadside in the county, gorging themselves on red hawthorn berries left over from the summer. The last member of the thrush family is sadly in great decline. However Shropshire offers the best chance to see this species in England. Its the Ring Ouzel; superficially resembling a blackbird but with a large white dot painted on its chest. Although its home is traditionally the Welsh hills, a fair few of these birds fly over the border and set up camp in our countryside. However if you find one in your back garden, count yourself as truly blessed for they are a rare sight even in Wales.
Lastly, the two most brightly coloured garden birds likely to make a festive appearance are the bohemian waxwing and an old favourite, the goldfinch. Waxwings follow the redwings and fieldfares over from Iceland and Scandinavia. But goldfinches are of course residents here in the UK. Try tempting these little glints of treasure by picking the abundant, dead teasel heads found on our verges and in our hedgerows and filling them with niger seeds.
Watching all these winter marvels, often from the comfort of your sitting room, it really will make you wonder why on earth anyone found mid-winter so bleak at all! Maybe they were a turkey? Happy Christmas!