In the bleak midwinter

Words by:
Colin Smale
Featured in:
January 2022

Colin Smale’s words and photography remind us that in spite of climate change we can still find ourselves in the firm grip of winter when earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone.

Familiar landscapes such as our rolling Wolds suddenly take on a mantle of white with icy breezes whipping up spindrift which glides and spins softly across those once green pastures.

Indoors, we can turn up the heat and make yet another cup of tea but out there the wildlife has to make life and death decisions as the weather around it changes. Birds such as Whooper and Bewick’s swans from Iceland and Russia made their decision back in October/November when they came here to escape the Arctic’s fury. Now even they, driven off the farmland where they were feeding on spilt grain and what was left of the potato and beet crops, must find somewhere else to feed.

After many years Welney Wildlife Centre is now well known to them and around 9,000 swans and at least as many ducks will take advantage of the safe haven and free food supplied to them there. It’s a fantastic sight to see and well worth a winter visit – and it’s free!

It was here in the hard winter of 2011 that I watched a resourceful kestrel on the very margins of life and death finding a meal. No hovering over the grassy meadows now, nothing to be had there. She found a dead duck frozen solid on the bankside, which she was able to glean a morsel or two from, and out on the water a swan carcass was her only other source of food – and all day she went from one to the other, pulling off hard titbits of meat. I hope she survived, she deserved to.

On the seashore there are simply beautiful snow buntings, also from the Polar Regions. They are able to cope with these conditions and are much more resourceful. For these and flocks of twite it seems the seashore and sand dunes are the place to go. Here wind-blown seeds are found in abundance among the marram grass and the high-tide line.

Farmyards are also great refuges; for finches, buntings and game birds, here there should be a plentiful supply of grain and cattle feed. The haystacks and barns offer warmth and cover in the worst of weather. Meanwhile a covey of English partridges are keeping warm by huddling together under a very bleak looking hawthorn hedge.

The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then?
Poor thing.

He’ll sit in a barn,
And keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing,
Poor thing.

Doubtless a robin will be taking advantage of a barn too somewhere tonight…



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