Brian Fereday’s Nature notes were written on his monthly walks around our farm trail. Brian lived and worked in this landscape and knew it intimately. We are lucky to have his records of the changing seasons and the comings and goings of the flora and fauna throughout the years. Here we revisit his December walk.
Only just over two weeks to go to the shortest day and midwinter’s day and another natural cycle is over. So the shortest day marks a time of decline and also renewal. Although the edges are often blurred a little by climatic conditions and how they affect plants and wildlife. After the 21st of December, the light is coming back, albeit in a very gradual way with the worst of winter to come. However, the soil holds secrets and if one dug into a woodland soil, especially one with bulbous plants like Wild Daffodil or Snowdrop, you would see shoots appearing even now a few inches under the ground.
A still day for the walk. Quite balmy for mid-December. The hedges had been trimmed since last month and as a result, everything in the lane and out in the field boundaries was looking rather bare and featureless.
The pond was mirror-like with neither wind nor wildlife ruffling its surface. It was mid-afternoon and walkers had passed by that time, so there were no expectations of seeing anything furred or feathered. I emerged from the pond area into the sun. Just outside the gate, I looked into the sun and there was a field full of sheep. They were grazing peacefully spread wide across the field. The sun was filtering through a low-level haze from a yellow and pale grey sky. The trees in Nannypie Lane were quite spectral, but the sheep, they were, each of them, wearing a halo of light as the low angle sun shone through the edges of their fleeces. I had the low angle sun in mind as I carried on remembering the aerial photograph taken of Sizergh Fell in December on a similar day and how the shadows had revealed so many landforms, archaeological and natural. I went into the next field and the sun was revealing, even from the ground, dips and levels in what in any other time of the year would have looked a smooth field. Nothing looked archaeological however, little wonder as the field I was in had been ploughed for generations.
From the field, the hedgerow trees looked especially fine in their leafless state, showing their magnificent structures. Structures built on year after year shapes formed according to the nuances of their position and the soil. Mainly Ash trees old and young are found in the hedges of South Westmorland. Ash around the farm and Sycamore to shelter the farmstead. May it always be so with talk of the dreaded ash disease hanging like a sword above our beautiful trees.
I entered the woods. I was welcomed by a gang of Jays. They were flitting from ground to treetop, amidst blue wing flashes and a composition of throaty calls. Then they headed towards the river. I don’t know what happened there but I think they upset the Jackdaws around the old buildings as the sounds grew to a chorus of crow family calls. Rejoicing or arguing, who knows? However, it was good to see the Jay family had replaced the people for a while, until Easter that is. By then the Rooks will have added their notes to the corvine choir.
As I ascended the path I had a similar experience with a Birch as I had had with the sheep. Another low sun incident. Young Birch often have a very thin flaky bark overlying the main bark which is the main protection of the tree. This bark can flake and hang in tatters from the stem. This was such a tree and the sun was lighting up the fringe of thin bark along the little tree’s stem. The colours were orange, purple and gold and the stem was aflame. Who says that winter is a dull season. I feel that beauty is everywhere at any time, you just have to slow down and look.
Thinking of tree structures and how trees adapt and exploit growing conditions I came out onto the stone track at the top of the hill. There, to the right and in front are some big oaks. These oaks are spread throughout the wood and indeed throughout the Sizergh Estate. They are the same shape as open-grown trees. They have been open grown in a way because every fifteen to twenty-five years they would have had any competition removed from around them. In that way, they have taken advantage of the light flooding in from time to time and grown into spreading trees. In an oak plantation, their shapes would have been taller and less heavily branched. In the past, that was the system. The oaks were felled for their stem but also their branches which were used for structural purposes. In old buildings, the roof and floor joists are often branchwood as can be seen from the bends and twists in the timbers. Open grown, heavily branched trees were useful in the past, now the same type of tree is valuable in nature conservation terms. As well as good feeding and nesting places they hold populations of creatures from the past to spread on to younger oaks. So the succession of species is ensured.
Again I was a bit surprised that I didn’t find Goldfinches feeding on the grassy area nearby. These are very mobile birds and I could just be not coinciding with their visits. I must make an appointment to meet them next time. They arrive unannounced in the garden at home, feeding on Teazle seedheads.
I wandered on hoping to see another haloed tree before the sun sank behind Sizergh Fell. Already the air felt chill as I moved behind a thicket of trees. I could hear chain saws cutting further along the track. The National Trust foresters had resumed their thinning of the Beech and Larch towards the top of the wood. The Beech was used as firewood and the Larch for fencing materials and construction boards.
I talked with them for a while until we all started to feel the cold and I headed to try and find the last rays of sun in the field outside the wood. The sun had gone behind the Fell so I was to be disappointed. I started the downhill walk to the Farm. As usual, the view had much to offer with a grey mist rising from the river area. Everything was soft and subdued reflecting the time of year and low energy times. I thought ebb and flow. Change is everywhere and constant and without a kind of death, there can’t be renewal.