Mary Quicke's blog
We had daffodils at New Year, grass growing, birds sounding spring-like. The winter has still got some bite, but every succeeding day has the sun higher, the day longer, driving winter down to the bottom of the year as we slowly and surely climb out. Tiny signs of growth peep out - snowdrops, so modest and quiet, little red female hazel flowers, and the lambs’ tails like male flowers that have been slowly developing and lengthening, suddenly bursting out. Oak flowers give a purple look to the woodland on the other side of the valley, darker and richer on the ends of the twigs. I saw a buzzard sit quietly on a post on a tree guard for some apple trees we planted. Suddenly he dropped heavily on a clump of grass only four feet below, then laboured away in his heavy flight with a little speck in his talons. One bird’s feast is one vole’s spring gone.
I always think of January as cold, wet and dark, the weary start of the hundred hungry days to Easter, when there is little keep for man or beast, and we all live off our reserves (or the shops, if you are human). Then you get one of those dazzling days of sunshine, low rays picking out every detail, bright yellow gorse with its coconut scent, bright red rosehips, a bright blue sky, warm in the sun out of the wind if you’ve enough layers on. Even on the coldest and wettest day, moths dance in torchlight in the woods. The little fallow hind I met in the road looked fat and prosperous after a kind autumn. I saw a raven delicately nibbling a crab apple, then flying off with it in its beak.
What an extraordinarily mild and glorious autumn! Now we are due some cold in December, but was it the most beautiful autumn ever? Or is every autumn that gorgeous if you stop and stand and stare? The hedgerows are still weighed down with the richest sloe harvest, the fattest haws, the brightest hips. The warm autumn meant grass kept growing, even my lettuce in the garden thinks it’s spring. Each frost singes the sappy growth, but everything has thrived: deer look sleek and fat, ready for the winter.
Such warm weather so late makes the cold weather seem colder when it comes. The autumn colour seems less bright, too - the leaves have just faded on the trees, rather than go through those startling colours. The fallow deer started their rut later - so are still roaring this month. It’s such hard work for the bucks, they seemed to delay, or maybe it was the does deciding they were hot and bothered not just hot. It won’t change the time they kid, as the does store the semen until it’s time to implant - how do they do that? I’ve heard they can even choose whether they produce males or females, depending on what the herd needs.
Autumn is really here. The high winds, residues of American hurricanes, have let us know summer has gone. Now the gathering dark in the mornings & evenings shows we are on the long switchback journey down to the shortest day. The consolation prize is those bright autumn days of colourful leaves vivid in the sunshine, every sunlit detail highlighted by the shadows as the sun gets lower in the sky.
Blowsy late summer seeps into the richness and edge of early autumn. Field margins are heavy with grass seedheads, hedgerows richly hanging with blackberries, rosehip, haws, sloes. Jack rabbits look fat and prosperous, foxes well covered, the buzzards well grown and lazy - meat is easy to find. They take off heavily from a branch as you walk along, do they get too heavy to take off if they eat to much?
The countryside is taking on that internal look, drier, harder, plants ripening, getting stalky, animals fattening, birds growing, strengthening for the long flight to Africa for many. To us, it feels like we are still in the height of summer. To the natural world, the hatches are starting to get battened down for the rigours of winter. The young rabbits are getting fat on the rich vegetation, and the buzzards and fox cubs are getting fat on the young rabbits.
July, and the year tips into high summer, furious growth limited by dry weather and plants seeding. Animals and plants have that well fed look – house martens wheel around the house, giving us freedom from hornets coming in in the evening – do these tiny birds take those huge insects? I drove back from talking to the Exmoor Women Farming Group across Exmoor, expecting to see wildlife along the way – not much – as soon as I got onto our farm, I saw fallow deer, a fat badger, and two roly-poly fox cubs. Squirrels are eating my strawberries; last year I was getting a colander a day, this year just a handful. I’ve got electrified chicken wire and two nets around them, and they are jumping the wire and breaking the net. Next is to completely encase the strawberries in a cage of chicken wire. Too much wildlife!
June is rich and luscious, leaves dripping from the trees, all new unfurled and perfect. Everything has a prosperous look. The badgers scuttle away from us every time we go down the lane at night, fat and mercifully healthy looking. The red hinds feast on the broad flag leaves of wheat, with the sweet ears just emerging. They are so well fed that they are inattentive, and jump out almost on top of us out of the hedge. I scramble up the hedge to see a herd of 40 hinds looking at me indignantly and quizzically wondering why I disturb their feast. They seem to know that it’s the close season and trot over the skyline in an orderly formation: I can smell them on the wind, there are so many of them, so they are still grazing just out of sight.
When spring starts, I always get a sense of relief and surprise that it really is happening again. Now it’s May, that initial disbelief is replaced by complete amazement at how much life, growth, wild energy suffuses everything I can see.
Every hedgerow has gone crazy, sending out the cow parsley that grows visibly day to day, suddenly the lanes are too narrow for cars to go down without the delicate flowers stroking the sides. The thorn hedge that I laid, worried it would kill the blackthorn and hawthorn, is flowering for England on its side. Pairs of birds fly flirtatiously together, absorbed in each other, oblivious of predators for the only time in the year. The dazzling succession of greens in the woodland deepens and starts becoming one great motor of growth as all the leaves have unfurled from their delicate winter protection and open themselves, like photovoltaic cells, to harvest the sun’s energy.