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Winter Blues

As I write this I’m huddled over a steaming mug of tea, wearing my warmest jumper and waiting for the forecast sleet to start falling outside. I console myself with the thought that, though it might not feel like it, spring is on the way. It probably hasn’t escaped long-term readers of these blogs that I’m no fan of winter! I’m not always right though— Aristotle said that “To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.” And for John Steinbeck “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” Get outdoors and go looking and it won’t take you long to spot the signs of nature coming back to life. The trees are already full of bud and the tips of the first bulbs are poking through the ground, ready to bring us snowdrops and daffodils, with primroses not far behind. Robins and blackbirds are singing already at dawn, eager for the spring to come, and it won’t be long before we start to notice

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Winter wisdom

Winter! That time of year when thoughts turn inwards, when we all seek respite from the cold and get ourselves cooried in until spring. The work of harvest is over and there’s time yet until planting so traditionally this was the time for storytelling. George Mackay Brown, the great Orcadian storyteller talked of tongues “touched to enchantment by starlight and peat flame”. Families would gather round the hearth to be thrilled by stories – such as that of the Cailleach Bheur who used her birch staff and her iron hammer to shape Scotland’s valleys and mountains. The Cailleach brought winter every year, her breath was the chill wind and her blanket was the snow. She would search the land and cull anything whose time it was to die, but she would also seek out and protect the buried seeds of life, guarding them until spring. She was the protector of the wolf and the deer – because sometimes the last kindness she could give to a starving winter stag was the embrace of the pack. Like many folk tales, there

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Why robins are not just for Christmas

As I was recycling this year’s batch of lovely Christmas cards I started to wonder why so many of them have robins on them. Is it because my friends know I have a soft spot for wildlife or were they just on sale? What did robins have to do with Christmas anyway? After bit of research, I found it all came back to the Victorians, those well-known Christmas romantics. The postmen delivering good tidings were nicknamed ‘robins’ thanks to their bright red jackets. As the idea of Christmas cards caught on the robin made a leap from delivering the cards to featuring on them and the fact that robins can easily be spotted in the snow strengthened the connection. Robins are visible and sing noisily through the year making them one of my favourite animals to watch. They are specially adapted to make the most out of the poor light and are often active in half-light when few other birds are about. Whist they look cute they are fiercely territorial and will sing loudly to defend their territory and attract

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Winter is Coming

As my granddad used to say, “the nights are fair draw’n in”. As I write this at 4pm it’s already dark outside and the tail end of a winter storm is blowing freezing rain through the town. But before I complain, perhaps I should spare a thought for the wildlife which is enduring the same conditions but doesn’t get to come in out of the cold and put the kettle on! People are sometimes surprised to find out bats and hedgehogs are the only mammals that really hibernate through the winter in Scotland. For most daily life must go on. Many will already be planning for the new year – foxes right now are beginning to find and defend territory, preparing for cubs in Spring. This is the peak time for foxes mating – and for mistaken but well-meaning calls to the police as people hear their eerie calls and mistake them for human screams. Badgers mate all year round but practice delayed implantation. This means no matter when they were conceived young don’t begin to develop in the womb

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How the beast from the east affects our wildlife

The “beast from the east” hit with a vengeance last week leaving huge amounts of snow and freezing temperatures in its wake. We were just starting to get the first reports of bumblebees and hedgehogs coming out of hibernation in the week leading up to it so for those individuals there are some hard days ahead. They will face a race between energy reserves running out and the weather improving. Many birds have been heralding spring too, pairing up, singing, even prospecting for nests. Over a cold spell like this breeding will be a lower priority than the struggle for survival. Many birds are dependent on people providing them with food and its especially important not to forget our feathered friends when the weather turns. On the upside, weather events like this are a great chance to see something different. Pay close attention to the birds in your garden and you might catch sight of something unusual. I’ve seen bramblings and reed buntings regularly mixed in with the usual chaffinches and sparrows. The differences can be subtle so they’re easy

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Frost Beards

Sometimes you find beauty in the strangest places. Last Sunday was spent out with the Nature Ninja Volunteers at St Maurice’s Pond, removing invasive rhododendron and litter picking. St Maurice’s Pond itself is a beautiful place but you don’t normally get the best view of it while patrolling with a bin bag. On this occasion keeping our eyes to the ground paid off, and we came across some amazing silky white frost beards. Frost beards are created when water is forced out from inside pieces of fallen dead wood. They are quite rare and many people will live around woodlands all their lives and never see one. For some reason they actually seem to be relatively common in Cumbernauld. In order to form they need a precise combination of wood type, ground and air temperature and humidity. In the last few years scientists have discovered it also requires a very specific type of fungus called Exidiopsis effusa which shapes the ice into precise hair thin, silky filaments each just 0.01mm wide as it ‘grows’. Frost beards are incredibly delicate and

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We wish yew a Merry Christmas

Every December the world stops. For weeks now the light has been fading,every day shorter than the one before, the cold and the dark becoming all encompassing. And then for a few days in December time stands still. The sun stops its retreat and holds its position in the sky… And the year turns. Minute by minute the days begin to stretch out again. There are many natural traditions associated with this seasonal miracle and the yew tree is one of the most potent, its long life – some are known to be thousands of years old – and ability to regenerate means it is associated with longevity and rebirth. The original Yule log was a piece of yew, set on the hearth and burned for 12 days, its bright flames encouraging the sun to return. The winter solstice is almost on us again and, like every year I’ll go out and search out a yew tree, not to burn or to take home, but simply to admire. It reminds me that we are all linked to our future as