A new year, a new lockdown. Outside it’s cold, wet, dark and gloomy. Completing the winter work programme at Wheatfen has become a growing challenge with the recent floods, alongside standing down our fantastic army of volunteers.
To top it off, the beautiful swallowtail pupa I discovered deep within the fen, that I had fondly named “The Warden”, has been predated. Therefore, in my opinion I have every right to be grumpy; to moan, curse and mumble away to myself in aggrieved tones. However, nature at Wheatfen refuses to tolerate such behaviour. With every second spent immersed in the natural world comes a greater sense of calm and content. I may be at the bottom of the pile for receiving a Covid-19 vaccine due to youthfulness, but nature is a vaccine for pandemic woes. The only side effect I’ve noticed so far is exultation; for the signs of spring are massing.
December 21st, winter solstice – the shortest day, longest night, and often over looked by many due to the build up to Christmas day itself. Not so for the birds, they notice.
As we resurface from a festive week of over indulgence, the days of January begin to lengthen. Despite the harsh frosts, freezing fog, and persistent northerly winds, there is a subtle change in the air. At first, I sense it, but can’t quite put my finger on it. But then I realise it is the air of promise and better times to come; of spring gate-crashing winter’s party. Spring is coming, whether winter likes it or not.
At Wheatfen, the great spotted woodpecker takes a break from scoffing all the peanuts from the bird feeder to drum out a rattling beat on a dead oak branch. Blue tits are busy inspecting the 60 newly erected bird boxes around the reserve; is there a more intense examination of a woodworker’s craftmanship?
Robins’ melodious, almost sorrowful sounding winter song suddenly contains an air of snap and purpose to it. When the wind abates and a delicate hint of warmth is felt from the strengthening sun, a male great tit clears out his throat and throws out his brief, repetitive tune. Its meaning to other great tits is of territorial establishment, but also a flirtatious advertisement to the ladies. To us nature lovers in the depths of January, its meaning is heart-warming and immeasurable.
Below ground too, life stirs. Despite the saturated ground and regular flooding of the paths and fen, the moles have been throwing up many new hills in a frenzy of digging. In defence against the flooding, the moles have also constructed vast fortresses; giant mole hills knee-height at apex. Within these fortresses are labyrinths of tunnels, a warm nesting chamber, and a well-stocked larder of decapitated worms keeping the moles happy whilst the rest of us flounder about above ground in a foot of floodwater.
Alas, no amount of wishful thinking will hurry forth Wheatfen’s botanical beauty prematurely; this secret, nature still holds under lock and key. The fen habitat itself appears dormant; but within the winter seas of beige stems of last year’s reed growth, life is rousing. There is a greening down amongst the reed litter, with the shoots of countless fen plants peeping up out of the peat with the passing days.
Within the tangled chaos of the carr woodland the vivid glow of scarlet elf cup fungi, growing from deadwood on the ground, fruits. It is a welcome splash of colour. The wood elves have got their drinking vessels back, as folklore would have us told. Also, amongst the fallen and attached dead branches, a sulphur-coloured gelatinous mass is found; the aptly named yellow brain fungi.
All seems undone and forlorn as winter tries to strangle spring again before it takes hold; another cold snap grips the fen. But then I spot it. A solitary flake of pure, brilliant white snow atop a small cluster of green shoots. A bloom of the snowdrop has unfurled, and there will be many more to come.
Wheatfen remains open to the public during the current lockdown. However, please follow Government restrictions. Good luck trying to work out the definition of “local”, but where you can, get out into the countryside; enjoy natures healing properties as well as the unfolding of spring.