Tuesday 3rd December – Fleets Dam – For once it is not raining but it is still extremely soggy underfoot. The Willow Carr (a wet area of willow scrub) is now a sizable pond. A Moorhen bobs across open water between the reeds. On the large fishing lake, a Grey Heron stands on one of the fishing stations. It plunges into the water but emerges with nothing. Feathers are shaken with almost an embarrassed motion and it flies off to another platform. There are a few Black-headed Gulls at the end of the lake. Occasionally, one takes off for a circuit of the water, seeking anything vaguely edible.
Thursday 5th December – Willowbank – Bright blue skies, blazing sunshine and a fleeting visit from Jack Frost. It is still wet and muddy everywhere and the sun has little drying effect. Greenfinches occupy the tops of Hawthorn bushes and chatter. A Cormorant flies down the valley. Redwings are diving through the Hawthorns. A lone Long-tailed Tit crosses the hillside, a ball with a long stalk out the back.
Monday 9th December – Barnsley Canal – The tow-path is an utter mess! Horses have been allowed to wander right up to the Smithies Lane entrance and have churned it up into ankle deep mud. This is supposed to be a public footpath and a heritage trail, but the Council does little to make it accessible to the public. It is cold and frost today, but the frost was not hard enough to freeze the mud. Redwings are plentiful as are Blackbirds. A flock of Wood Pigeons flap noisily out of an Ash and head across the valley to the winter wheat fields. A Moorhen half flies, half jumps over reeds to get away from me. It is sad that wildlife is so terrified of humans, although hardly surprising! A Grey Heron squawks from one of the dead trees in the Loop. Magpies sit atop Willow withies watching. Earlier in the morning, flocks of Rooks flew high across the town.
Thursday 12th December – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – A cold morning. The wires high on the electricity pylons crackle. There is a thin veneer of ice on the canal. Wrens dart across the water into the bushes on the far side and tick angrily. There are plenty of Long-tailed Tits in the area, squeaking excitedly as they travel through the trees. It remains overcast and very dark. The River Dearne churns down through the broken masonry of the old aqueduct, the water looks black as it reflects the sky. Mallard are milling around below the bridge and fly off quacking. Magpie and Wood Pigeon nests are clear to see in the leafless trees.
Monday 16th December – Fleets Dam – And the rain continues to fall. The River Dearne is in spate. Instead of several courses of water pouring over the weir, there is a single sheet of water plunging down. It obscures the various lumps of masonry at the weir’s base in a cauldron of pale brown water. The water is much slower just upstream and the volume has failed to shift the flotilla of rubbish held up by a Willow that has fallen across the river. Fleets Dam is grey and gloomy. A pair of Black-headed Gulls stand on the pontoon but little else moves.
Tuesday 17th December – Willowbank – A cold wind chills the bones as I head across the grass. A pony stands wet, its coat snared with burrs – hopefully it will receive some attention soon. Redwings fly off from bushes. Small flock after flock. Many of the Hawthorns are now looking depleted of berries, but others seem untouched. Two Cormorants fly up the valley. A few minutes later another five follow them. A Kestrel soars high, gently moving around checking the ground below but always heading south.
Wednesday 18th December – High Hoyland – A cold but bright morning. Heading up the hill from the motorway, a Ring-necked Pheasant leaps up from the road side and over a dry stone wall. A few yards on, a Moorhen does the same. Over the road from the closed church on the ridge, the land drops away. Down the woods, mainly bare trees, but the occasional Holly stands dark. Blue Tits and Chaffinches chatter. Dill the Dog hurtles off after Grey Squirrels, her feet making a rhythmic crunch as she gallops across the frozen leaf litter. Beyond the woods are frost covered frozen fields. Back up at the church it is a dismal sight. Although closed some years ago, the church was being used by Bretton College, but that now seems to have stopped. Windows have been broken and the graveyard look unkempt. I pluck a couple of twigs of Yew to make a Yule log, tying them onto a small log of Pear from the garden using a red bow. A Nuthatch darts across the graveyard towards a large spreading Oak. In the distance, white plumes of steam rise from power stations’ cooling towers.
Friday 20th December – Dearne Valley Park – A cold dark morning. The river level has dropped. Eight Cormorants fly up the valley. A group of Siskins twitter as they feed in an Alder.
Saturday 21st December – Silkstone Fall – The mercury hovers at about 0°C, but the paths are still muddy. I collect tinder for fires, but the wood is soaked through. A Nuthatch has a nut jammed in an Oak branch and is bashing it with its beak. A Green Woodpecker flies over calling regularly.
Saturday 28th December – Willowbank – And the rain continues. After a very wet Christmas in Surrey we have returned north, albeit briefly. Willowbank is sodden and there is a lot of water in the valley. Three Cormorant sit in one of the dead trees on the Loop. Several Grey Herons occupy similar places in other trees. Redwings fly around in small flocks.
Sunday 29th December – Nunney, Somerset – Starlings and Jackdaws are noisy in the village. A Song Thrush sings in a tree above a kissing stile on the edge of a wood. The path through the wood is soaked and very muddy. The same applies to the sheep field at the top of the wood. Dill the Dog and Jasper (Peter and Jo’s Wolfhound cross German Shepherd) do not mind in the slightest and charge around getting wetter and muddier by the minute. Nunney Brook, usually a gentle clear stream, is rushing and dirty brown. A Common Buzzard flaps lazily overhead. A Balsam tree hosts a clump of Toadstools, Flammulina velutipes – the Velvet Shank. It has a bright orange, slimy cap and a velvety blackish stem and is one of the few winter growing mushrooms. It is grown commercially in Japan under the name “Enoko-take”. A public notice is attached to a telegraph pole notifying a request to cut down four Cretan Pines. There are a number of beautiful pines in the fields and behind the tall wall of the big house, but a number show signs of decay and would be dangerous, so removal is sad but necessary. We wash the dogs at the little hard by the market cross where normally the stream drifts by and is the end of the Easter duck race. Today it is deep and fast flowing.
Monday 30th December – Asham Wood Quarry – This is a huge abandoned quarry – simply acres of flat, scoured land and sharp cliffs. Buddleia and Silver Birch are colonising rapidly. Blue Tits move through the trees. Peter assures me the area is called “Dead Woman’s Bottom”. I am sceptical, but in later conversation I am assured the area exists but there is disagreement about its actual location. The quarry is sandstone shot through with Calcite. There are areas of iron staining. Unfortunately, the area is littered with burned out stolen cars. Jasper bowls Dill the Dog over in the middle of a muddy pool. It is quite funny, until I remember I will have to clean her. It starts to rain heavily. A stream gushes through the middle of the quarry, the water green-grey. There are, apparently, three natural springs in the quarry. One cliff side is a tilted sea bed. Peter tells me it is full of pieces of crinoid. A sign of the mildness of the winter is catkins in bloom.