The varied mood swings of the fen are far from subtle during the short daylight hours of mid-winter. We hope and yearn for those crisp, bright, sunny days where the sky glows a shade of blue that even Farrow and Ball would struggle to describe.
Alas those days have been few and far between this season. Instead, heavy clouds have lumbered across supressed skies. Laden with rain these clouds have seemingly followed me around the fen to empty their loads. Herons have hunched miserably along dyke edges, their aim poor as they struggle to see fish below the rain distorted waters. Moorhens have skulked in saturated reedbeds, as even the Chinese water deer have questioned their own sanity, their love of the wetlands waning.
To add to this rainy few weeks, Wheatfen Broad did its best to swallow me up (a refreshing dunking I had not asked for) during an effort to remove some invasive scrub from its edge. For days the office radiator worked overtime to dry out two water logged wellies. Steam arose from these boots, filling the room with the curious scent of hot rubber and stewed sock, as the rain pitter pattered down on the roof. Meanwhile, a Warden grumbled to his volunteers about not being able to cut his reed.
But change comes swift, and one recent morning when I stepped out the door to a star-filled sky and a frosted car windscreen, it was a race against the sun to get to the reserve as it rose. Time it right and, if I am lucky, the reserve will offer up its magic for a few glorious moments. Blankets of mist hung over the reedbeds in smoky ribbons. And as the winter sun struggled to gain height above the distant horizon, seemingly threatening to stall as I willed it on, its rays suddenly blazed across the fen. Then the world sparkled. Thousands of feathered seed heads of reed, smothered in nature’s own unique craftsmanship – a thick frost that dazzled under the sun’s spell. And as the cold air filled the lungs and my breath steamed before me, there was not a breeze to stir the damp vegetation and I longed for a strong, drying wind. I could not cut my reed that day.
Instead, I stood and enjoyed the sight of a small group of teal circling over the Broad, their fast wing beats faltering as their legs suddenly folded down like the landing gear of an aircraft. They whiffled downwards, a jerky descent twisting this way and that to reduce their speed before the final few flaps to land smoothly on the water. A pair of mallard raced in behind, appearing somewhat clumsy and heavy compared to the teal as they greeted the water with a splash. But even mallard could be described as elegant in comparison with a boisterous group of greylags that came in, hollering on the approach, jostling for space as they crash landed, scattering the ducks in every direction. They certainly have no etiquette. That cannot be said of their lordly cousins, the pink-footed Geese. Majestic in flight, spectacular in their classic “V” formations and proud in voice, they passed over the reserve on their way south. Perhaps they had discovered the harvested sugar-beet fields nearby, where they feed on the sugar rich offerings of the sliced beet tops. The greylags piped up with a loud cackle as they caught wind of the “pinks” flying overhead. Under my breath I reprimanded the noisy bunch for their lack of respect.
One day of sunshine in a week of further rain showers. However, having bird feeders behind the office does offer up much entertainment on such days, and not just from the birds. One incident I recall came by chance as I glanced out of the office window just at the right time to observe a rather rounded rat squaring up to an equally chubby looking grey squirrel. These two raiders of the bird feeders were hoovering up spilt seed from above. The nuthatch is the culprit, turfing out seed after seed onto the floor below as he searches for his preferred delicacy. Normally a particularly handsome pheasant virtually stands beneath, beak agape as food falls in from above. On this occasion, however, the much larger squirrel, flexing his big bushy tail, gingerly crept this way and that after the fallen morsels, to the displeasure of the smaller rat. But old Reggie rat was a fiery character, and enough was enough as he charged aggressively at the squirrel to send it scampering away into the undergrowth.
It was a few days to go before my Christmas break, and I had to finish off a couple of projects around the reserve. The hazel coppicing needed to be completed in the wood, and I was also keen to finish the scrub clearance by the Broad. It was promising to be a fine day as I strolled down the path onto the fen. A robin sung its festive jingle from a willow bush nearby; its gentle notes were warming on that chilly day. The wind was brisk and the sun shone brightly; a day full of promise. Perhaps the above projects would have to go on hold, a Warden must prioritise after all, and there was a task that must be completed, something I had been itching to start for many weeks. But my heart soon sank as I took note of the tide rapidly filling the dyke. It would soon spill out onto the fen in its rapid charge to flood the reserve. No reed would be cut that day.
But should the sun shine brightly on Christmas day and my long-lost friend, a drying south-westerly wind be blowing strong, be sure to know that some reed will get cut that day. The turkey will have to wait.
Merry Christmas to one and all!
Words by Will Fitch, Wheatfen Warden