Winter on Dartmoor is characterised by days of rain, strong winds and lots of mud. Hail, sometimes the size of large capers, can slap and exfoliate your face, an unpleasant experience as if a cruel dermatologist was having a laugh. Occasionally we get snow. All of this conspires to delay certain projects, some of which we do need to urgently address. On the few days we’ve had a break from the wet and windy stuff, I’ve managed to get out into the garden to assess and tidy. I observe for signs of growth and areas that need repair. I noted last week daffodils are starting to break the ground, which seems early, but I know in our climate it isn’t. They are hearty enough to withstand a frost or snow in February. I look at our raised vegetable beds knowing some attention is needed. We will be hoisting a few fallen stones back onto our dry stone walls as well. I examine with pride our young hedge.
In 2016, Roger and I planted 150 hedge plants. The following year, we added 100 more, doubling the thickness. We’ve positioned a mix of native hedge plants along the south and west parts of the garden: Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Maple, Holly and Alder. Apart from providing an alternative boundary to stock proof fencing, our hope for these hedges is to provide greater habitat for the wide variety of animals and plants. A happy foraging place for birds, small mammals and pollinators. Perhaps too, we can create a bit of a wind break from those strong prevailing storm gusts coming up from the south. Attractive and purposeful.
The other day we had a much needed break from the rain. A day of sunshine with puffy clouds like giant spun cotton candy in the sky. It was a short lived reprieve. The next day our grey skies returned like a dirty plastic tarp on the wind. The ground remains saturated. The mud is everywhere. And the smell of wet dog has become all too familiar.
Today promises a mixed bag. Sun streaming through a rupture in the clouds and into the windows, brightening up this old stone farmhouse. Bright blue skies peak through from down the valley. Roger and I put on our winter-wear to take the dogs for a walk along the river, one of their favourites. No sooner are we all set to head out when we spy a wall of filthy boiling clouds traveling fast up the valley from the south. We dash back inside and wait for this patch of weather to move through. We watch the cold sleet pelt the old slate of the barn. The grey stones of walls meet the grey air passing through. The greens and browns of grasses and mosses are lost in the precipitation. The red berries on the hawthorn bushes strike brightly against the back drop of winter’s monochrome.
And as soon as this weather system came, it’s gone, a day of many atmospheric conditions. No wonder the British love talking about the weather, it is constantly mutating. Sunny with rain is an all too common forecast. Speaking of which, here it is, the sun again. As we stroll down the track, Millie and Brock, with tails aloft, trot on the hillside in search of scents and sticks. Roger recently spotted a fox in the mid-afternoon up on this hill, so no doubt our two canines will catch the occasional whiff of this sly creature. As we carry on, a flock of Fieldfares, perhaps fifty or sixty, suddenly take flight. Their hideout, a bunch of riverside willows, disturbed by the approach of two enthusiastic collies.
I like Fieldfares. They stand upright and move with purpose. They are gregarious, roaming the winter countryside in large flocks. When they perch in the open on gorse bushes or in the high branches of a Rowan tree, the air is filled with their constant chatter. In winter when they visit us, groups of them are found on the open moorland, they seem to like the rough grasses and gorse which surround us. Their presence indicating where berries and insects are to be found. They like hedges, feeding happily on Hawthorn berries. We’re glad our hedges are thriving.
Cloud cover at this time of year can sometimes be so thick I am only able to see a few feet ahead. When that happens, my hearing becomes more acute. Sometimes, the collective flap of Fieldfare wings can be heard through the mist. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “The sound floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of Fieldfare flying at an enormous speed – somewhere or other.” However, I prefer to see Fieldfares diving about in their formation flock. They are part of the winter scene.
Winter can be a time of scarcity, when wildlife ventures further in search of food. We keep food and water out for the birds. Fieldfares don’t come close into our garden to feed, preferring to feed on berries in the hedgerows and trees. They migrate here, arriving in November and spend winter with us before flapping on. Almost all will likely leave before they breed. This spring, we hope for a big return in our Swallows and House Martins, numbers having been inexplicably down the past few years.
We do have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. They have started pecking holes in search of bugs in a section of the Sycamore tree which shades Gin and Tonic Hill. We like the idea this pair is so close to Crockern. We hope they have a brood this spring.