December 2009

– Leominster – It is a clear night with a bright moon. The temperature drops quickly. By morning there is a heavy frost. Grass and leaves crunch underfoot. A Robin is singing from across the Kenwater. Thin clouds lie above Eaton Hill with a gradually paling sky behind. It hardly warms throughout the day, the pale watery sun has no heat.

Home – The frost has hit the pepper plants in the greenhouse and they are looking wilted. Maybe they will recover, but the crop has been good this year and they are so hot that a little goes a long way. The chickens are still laying a couple of eggs a day. A Raven flies over harried by a Carrion Crow.

– Queenswood Country Park – Head off into the woods on a grey and windy morning. A Treecreeper mouses its way up an Acer. There are few birds around this part of the woods, they seem very quiet and cold. Down a very muddy track deep into the lower slopes of Dinmore Hill. Through the trees, the fields below are flooded; water shining like silver. An Ivy stem climbs sinuously up a young Oak looking like a bulging vein before it bursts into a mass of leaves crowding the poor tree’s crown. A Common Buzzard flies low along the path in front of Maddy, but she does not notice! Round near the Redwood plantation there are far more birds – Chaffinches, Coal Tits and Blackbirds. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is calling. Seed pods like green-brown balls hang on thin stalks from a Handkerchief Tree, also called the Dove tree (Davidia involucrata), coming from central China. By the time we reach the lodge the sky is mainly blue and the sun shines.

– Mortimer Forest – A grey and very damp morning. Maddy’s routine of chasing her ball then laying down Maddyand nosing it away results in her underparts being coated in mud very quickly. When I take her ball away she finds a large stick, really a small branch which she drags along the track. She eventually works out that holding it in the middle means she can carry it without having her head twisted around to tug it along. The quiet is only occasionally broken by the cronking of Ravens overhead. They are mainly in pairs and tumble in the air together. One partially folds its wings and dives groundwards before unfolding them again and soaring upwards again. A Common Buzzard soars out from the woods. Sheep dot the green fields in the valley leading towards Wigmore. A track heads up towards the triangulation point. When it slopes upwards underfoot is slick, cream-coloured clay mud and when the track flattens it becomes muddy and rutted with puddles. The views from the triangulation point are dulled by the grey misty air. The descent is tricky as the ground slips underfoot. A flock of tits passes noisily, mainly hidden in the dense conifer branches.

South Leominster – The River Arrow has broken its banks and the fields either side of the A49 and the old Hereford Road are flooded. A Mute Swan is feeding on one extensive sheet of water.

– Croft Castle – The Christmas Fair at Croft Castle, or a collection of the usual suspects in the castle. The hall and most rooms downstairs have been decorated, mainly with ivy, holly and fir tree fronds. There are a couple of tastefully decorated and colour-coordinated Christmas trees. At home, we do not do “tasteful or colour-coordinated”, we have a large collection of baubles and bits from over many years and they are all displayed regardless. We like it that way. The fair has drawn a good number of visitors to the castle, which is always good news for the National Trust. Outside it is very damp, a now semi-permanent state of affairs. The vistas are still wonderful though; skeletal branches of deciduous trees reaching for the sky and the deep green conifers complementing them. Chaffinches hop along the garden walls and a noisy, excited chattering of House Sparrows comes from the roof of the stables entrance.

– Mortimer Forest – Up from Black Pool car park through the dark, quiet and very wet woods. Underfoot the cellulose of the dead leaves is being ground up by walkers’ boots with the sandy mud of the underlying rock to form next year’s growing medium. Out onto the open space of the Romano-British enclosure. A watery sun is trying to push through the clouds. There seem to be a lot of needleless conifers, and on checking later I realise they are Larches which are deciduous. On up towards High Vinnalls. To the north, beyond Mary Knoll, the Shropshire Hills rise out of a gentle sea of cloud. More easterly, Brown and Titterstone Clee are both crowned with a layer of grey cloud that has white cumulonimbus above it. From beside the deer watchtower on top of High Vinnalls the land still looks lush and green although distances are misty and grey. Near the summit Oakan Oak sapling just a few feet high is festooned with Oak Apples. A Forestry Commission track heads south past Climbing Jack Common. It drops down steadily to a junction where the Mortimer Trail heads either for Richards Castle to the south or across to Bircher Common to the south-west. The track swings eastwards and continues down hill, the direction I take. Another junction and its southwards. A large flock of finches flies over then turns back and alights at the top of a conifer in front of me. I realise they are too bulky for the presumed flock of Siskin or Redpolls and a quick scan reveals over fifty Crossbills, by far the largest flock I have ever seen. It seems one is sitting at the very top of the tree watching the land whilst the others feed just below. The track continues down a valley beneath the Deer Park and reaches a line of three ponds. The outflow from the ponds continues down a green valley with the conifer plantations to the north and south is a steep, bracken covered slope below Hanway Common. The track finally swings north again above Woodcroft and back towards Black Pool car park. A Raven is at the top of a tree, calling in a high-pitched bark before flying off with a guttural croak.

– Leominster – The wind has been turbulent throughout the night. It is bitterly cold this morning as the northerly slaps my face as I cross the Grange. Stars twinkle brightly overhead in a dark sky with just the hint of dawn in the east. A satellite streaks across, north-west to south-east. Later I try to find out what it was, but most sites seem to give too much information. I think it may have been Cosmos 2322, apparently a Russian Zenit booster second stage used to launch the Cosmos 2322 military signals intelligence satellite. As usual we have the bizarre game of throwing Maddy’s ball into the darkness and her chasing it – her night-sight never fails to impress me! Another dog passes with a flashing collar; from a distance all that can be seen is a red flash dashing to and fro. We return in the afternoon. The ground is still hard and frozen and although the wind has dropped it remains cold. Greenfinches, Bullfinches, Blue and Great Tits and Blackbirds (mainly juveniles) flit among the shrubs in the Millennium Park. A good number of Wood Pigeons are flying into the trees, maybe roosting early as the sky is darkening by the minute.

– Leominster – The morning of the solstice is frozen. There has been the slightest sprinkling of snow overnight which lays on a deeply frozen ground. A tinge of blue lightens the sky over Eaton Hill. The grass crunches. The satellite passes over, much fainter this morning. The frost, snow and ice hardly thaws at all during the cold day. At least in the afternoon Maddy can see her ball – or maybe it is that I can see it. Hunched Wood Pigeons sit silently in the trees. A Robin hops through an Ash sapling by the Kenwater. A Kingfisher flashes downstream in a turquoise blink. Blue and Great Tits move through the branches.

Home – The garden is rock hard. All the vegetables are looking limp and despondent in the cold. The chickens’ water needs defrosting several times a day. However, they are laying well, three eggs most days.

– Leominster-Surrey – The snow has eventually reached the Marches. There is a couple of inches and it is now freezing into a crisp blanket. The roads are, fortunately, clear so we are able to get off to Surrey. Heading into Gloucestershire where the hills are white and covered with layers of cloud down their flanks. Often the summits of the hills are clear of cloud. As we head east it is clear the snow fall is localised. In places there is a thick covering across the fields, in others the merest sprinkling. There is also a vast amount of water around with many flooded fields. In Surrey I take the dogs to the recreation ground which is covered in thawed and refrozen ice on sheets of water.

– Surrey-Leominster – Heading back home earlier than usual as we are concerned about the chickens’ water in the freezing weather. It was thawing all Christmas Day but froze again last night making the evening perambulation with Maddy (I decide taking Freddy the Westie would be too much) a very slippery experience. Just as we join the M4 motorway beyond Bracknell a Red Kite glides into view. We espy another a little further down the way. We need not have worried too much about the chickens as everything is fine, although the eggs are coated in mud.

– Leominster – Snow has returned to Wales and the Marches, except not here! We endure several days of grey, cold drizzle. I am furious that the Wood Pigeons have raided my fine stand of Purple-sprouting and destroyed many of the crowns. Off across the Grange in the rain, which Maddy ignores completely – as long as she has her ball the weather is irrelevant. A small flock of Long-tailed Tits squeaks their way alongside the railway. The railway footbridge has been repaired and the footpath is now open again. The River Lugg is full, fast-flowing and dirty mud-brown. I throw the ball around the meadows for a while, getting wetter all the time before retreating back across the Grange.

– Leominster – A bone-white full moon streaked with black cloud lays just above the western horizon. A bitter nor’easterly blows across the Grange. The birds are silent, the only sound the noise of traffic on the bypass. All but the most sheltered areas of ice have now thawed.


Mortimer Forest – Bringewood – Into the old Saxon hunting forest at Hazel Coppice. Ice and frozen snow lingers on the track in the shade created by the tall conifers. It crunches noisily underfoot. A Crossbill Bringewoodis calling loudly, jeep jeep. A man struggles past being pulled by his dog as he bemoans his unsuitable footwear. Ravens call and glide over the track. A small flock of tits squeaks as it moves through the trees. Horses wearing canvas coats graze on the snowy hillside above Monstay Farm. I climb up the steep hill to the track along the top of the ridge. There are dog and rabbit tracks in the snow and then a few deer hoof prints. The snow is deeper by the triangulation point. A pair of Common Buzzards circle effortlessly across the plain of the River Teme to the west of Ludlow. The plain is green but the Shropshire, Welsh and Clee Hills and distant Wenlock Edge are white with snow.

So we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It has started so hopefully but now we look back on years of disappointment. The rich got greedier and the poor’s share diminished whilst they feasted on the empty lives of “celebs”. Instead of peace we got Bush and Blair as the Abrahamic religions killed millions in their pursuit of domination. And we are seeming to sleepwalk into environmental catastrophe – how many creatures and plants will survive the next decade?