The shortest day of this winter has gone and two months of winter remain, so far we in Devon have missed any disruptive snowy or frosty weather but we have had more than our share of rain. It is unusual for much snow before Christmas and the last time that occurred in North Devon was early December 2010. That year almost a foot of snow fell and the few ewe lambs I had struggled to move around and just trampled one small area of their field and that’s where they stayed until the snow receded.
I recall after Christmas of 1983 or 1984 as being particularly difficult when trying to make a living farming. Plenty of snow and much worse penetrating cold, even the tractor diesel froze whilst driving along, this made life extremely hard. The small streams froze and we relied on these for water for the ewes. We had to resort to using a mattock ( a cross between an axe and an adze ) to dig frozen swedes to feed hundreds of sheep. These swedes were their only water source. It was this or nothing, but the sheep scour badly, fed on frozen swedes. The farm I occasionally helped on had one running tap working in this cold period that lasted some 6 weeks. Keeping yourself warm all day was also a challenge, as many layers of clothes as possible. My neighbouring farm, like many others just poured their milk away as no tankers could get to their farms but I do remember how all the community helped one another out to get by.
Wildlife suffers in extreme winters and in those winters of the early 1980 starving fieldfares and redwings would follow me and the sheep to the trough in expectation of any small morsel of food.
So far this winter hundred of these birds have been feeding in the orchard on the many dropped apples and I even have many bags of apples stored just in case of worse to come. If you feed your garden birds leave any old apples and even the peelings out and see what comes along.
There are good numbers of woodcock and snipe around this winter. Take a walk along any estuary or over any wet and rushy farmland and you are sure to frighten up the later. There are two types of snipe that occur in Devon and unless you are a professional birder armed with the most powerful telescope you will never see either in detail. However in flight they are easily told apart, the smaller jack snipe is much less common and is a weak flier. Once in the air it will likely only fly 100 metre and alight again and never getting high in the air. More resembling the flight of the water rail if you are fortunate enough to have seen one of these. Whereas the common snipe is a strong flier, with a marked zigzag flight and it climbs rapidly upwards and soon out of site. The woodcock is a much larger bird than the snipe and as the name suggests is found mainly in woodland during the day. Again this bird will sit tight to the ground and you may find you have got extremely close to it before it takes to flight. They occur mostly in undisturbed wet woodland, with fallen and decaying trees and leaf litter. Often the best time to see woodcock is at dusk as they leave woodland to forage in open farmland. So stand close to any large wooded area, preferably deciduous and they may fly by during these winter months. The very best time to see them is at dusk on the full moon.
I understand that it was back in 1963 large numbers of pink footed and greylag geese descended on North Devon in that atrocious winter and something not seen since. Very few greylag turn up each winter on the Taw or Torridge estuaries, but there are many wintering Brent geese to be seen up until March, to say nothing of thousands of others waterfowl and waders.
Many animals have built in mechanisms to cope with wintry conditions such as hibernation like dormice. Others take on a different strategy, one of the most obvious but not commonly seen is when stoats go into ermine. That’s when their coat changes colour and they turn a patchy white or sometimes a totally white colour. Though they are veracious predators they too are prey and this change to white is a great form of camouflage in wintry conditions. I have only seen this once on a stoat in Devon and I am not sure if they go totally white as they do in the north of the country, this probably depends on the severity of conditions
By February the days have become noticeably longer and as I lamb from the 1st February in a shed with no electric lights, just powerful torches this is a god send. The natural world is awakening all around but not that noticeable, unless you make that extra effort.
Usually by now the frogs have produced mountains of spawn, any cold weather may stop it developing fast, but as long as it doesn’t get frozen it’s possible to watch the tadpoles develop over the coming weeks. Snowdrops will be out and last well if the weather still has that winter chill and survive well if covered by snow or frost.
In woodland the first leaves have burst, honeysuckle being the first to appear. This must be to get growing early prior to being shaded out up the canopy of large trees in spring. By the end of the month the wild daffodils will up but not out in bloom. Bird wise, the rooks are well into nest building. Not many years ago I was clearing part of the river bank on the upper Mole underneath a rookery and never realised the noise they made or the intensity of the activity. I am not a great lover of rooks but any collection of wildlife is fascinating to watch , seeing how they interact as breeding pairs and squabble over nest sites whilst repairing those of previous years or building afresh.
At the beginning I mentioned the amount of autumn and early winter rain that had been keeping river levels high and dirty, so unfortunately, I am unable to report back on how the salmon and sea trout spawning went. It has not even been possible to locate any redds, however, I have seen a few spent fish, all dead, but lets hope those in the rivers successfully completed their lifecycle.