Nature Notes - December
December - in Gaelic, An mios marbh, the dead month in Anglo Saxon, Giuli, the month of Yule. December, the month of Christmas and Yule. Yule, this year, falls on the 21st December and to our ancient ancestors was a celebration of the return of the Oak King, the Sun King who marked the beginning of longer days and new life. Many of our Christmas customs derive from those of Yule. Remember, if you have a Yule log it is preferably of ash and should either come from your own land or be a gift: it should never be bought! The cold weather seems to have brought about a good crop of birds both in garden and field. Walking along the tow path the other day I stopped to watch a flock of my favourite small birds, the Long Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus). Invariably found in small flocks they are extremely active, busy little birds and absolutely enchanting to watch. They are easily identified by the long tail and their feathers of brown, black, white, cream, pink and purple: none garishly bright but pastel hues. Robins seem to be cheekier and bolder this year and ever more keen to watch me as much as I watch them. Walking up Dickinson Avenue the other day on late afternoon dog walk, I heard a very noisy twittering and looked up to see many starlings using one of the trees as a roost. Then, up they all shot, swirled around and disappeared over the roof tops. A day or so before that and returning from morning dog walk, I heard the unmistakable sound of flying swans and a wedge of nine swans passed over heading in the vague direction of the Moor. Some of you may have noticed that the water level in the Chess is slightly higher. Work has been carried out to raise the level as there has been a significant decline in fish and other water life. Many of our rivers are short of water and in a poor state. The reason is not lack of rain (!) but over extraction. The more people, the more building, the more water needed and then our rivers and their life suffer greatly. There is a real fear amongst lovers of our countryside and environmentalists that the new proposals by government will have a very serious, negative effect on our countryside and particularly our Greenbelt. If you want to keep it, speak out loud and clear and tell our excellent MP what you think. If we lose our Greenbelt protection it will never return. Croxley Green seems to have a thriving fox population and those that I have seen look very healthy. This is a fabulous time of year to get out and view the trees and hedgerows now looking so different without the dense leaves and vegetation. The bare branches of the trees allow a real appreciation of the shape. Find a tree that you like and really study it: look at it and notice all the little marks and indents and see what shapes you can see in the bark. A good way to waste a few minutes! There are plenty of berries and the like on the trees and bushes and still a few fungi on the ground. However, looking through my foraging “Bible” (River Cottage Handbook 7, Hedgerow, by John Wright: an excellent Christmas present for your own forager) December is a bleak month with Chickweed, Common Sorrel, Crow Garlic, Hairy Bittercress, Wintercress and Wood Sorrel all in low season. Along with Holly, Mistletoe must surely be the plant most people think of at Christmas time. Long connected with the magical and mystical Druids, Mistletoe symbolizes peace and hospitality, opens all locks, protects the house at Solstice from witches, sorcery, fire and lightning and protected infants from being taken by the fairy folk. In some places it was (perhaps still is) the custom to keep a “Kissing Bunch” hanging throughout the year until it was replaced at New Year when the old one was burned. December 6th is the Feast Day of St Nicholas a popular Hertfordshire saint. The 21st is the Feast Day of St Thomas the Apostle and was a traditional “mumping” or begging day in Hertfordshire. In some parts of Hertfordshire it was known as “a-Thomasing. The first English carols to appear in print were included on the Boke of St Albans and published, in St Albans, in 1486. By Hertfordshire tradition, Christmas Eve is the popular time for “guisers” or Mummers. However, Croxley Mummers will be appearing on the 23rd and doing their normal round ending up at The Sportsman at circa 2:30pm for a final fabulous appearance. This year, courtesy of those two village stalwarts, Ellie and Dan, we plan to have carols for all after the Mummers have mummed and I do hear rumours of mulled cider to add to the usual magnificent collection of beers. On the subject of cider, please make a note in your new diary that the evening of January 17th will be Croxley Green’s first Wassail Ceremony in Stone’s Orchard. Conditions permitting we will have the Croxley Mummers, Phoenix Morris and folk musicians. There will be singing and music for all and we will finish the evening back at The Sportsman to drink to the health of the 2013 Harvest. Please come along and make it a memorable night. I hope that you have enjoyed this year’s notes and don’t forget that, when deciding where to go for your Boxing Day walk, we now have our own Croxley Green Boundary Walk. Go do it and enjoy!