Suddenly our world seems a darker place. Yes, daylight hours are fading as we sink towards the winter solstice next month. But the fact that our clocks went back an hour last Saturday night, which meant that darkness began to invade us in the late afternoon rather than early evening, seemed somehow pivotal, as if at a stroke, winter had arrived! To emphasise that impression, under the pervading cover of that extra darkness, Jack Frost paid us a lightning visit to daub the landscape in white, perhaps for the first time this season.
There were many reasons for bringing in summer time and indeed over the years there have been several variations on a theme. The introduction of summer time was first made in 1916 and during the Second World War, Britain actually advanced the clock by two hours. Since then, there have also been other changes. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents maintains that we should keep summer time throughout the year. Their evidence suggests that extra light in the evenings would see accident rates fall. Others suggest that by not turning the clock back, considerable savings in fuel consumption would occur. In these next few weeks, schoolchildren, especially in rural areas where distances come into play, will be going home in darkness!
However, generally residents of Scotland and especially farmers are opposed to suggestions that we should remain in BST due to the fact that in the depths of winter, sunrise could be as late as ten in the morning. It could be argued that dairy farmers for instance need that extra hour of light in the mornings. However, the milking of cows has now become a much more mechanical process. Some cows do not ever leave the cavernous buildings in which they dwell. Rather than being led out to the fields to graze, the food is brought to them. And whereas when I was involved, many years ago, with dairy farming, a herd of forty or fifty milking cows might have been the norm, now size really matters. It is not unusual these days, to have several hundred cows under one roof all milked on revolving carousels, a process, which seems to go on all day! That truly is what might be called mechanised farming!
By coincidence, tomorrow there follows a full moon of some significance. By tradition, this will be day our wintering woodcock arrive, it was once believed, from the very moon itself! This is one of the more bizarre beliefs emanating apparently, from the sixteenth century but still widely believed in the eighteenth century. I understand the outlandish theory, was first promulgated by a Swedish writer and ecclesiastic by the name of Olaus Magnus. English academic Charles Morton, went even further, describing how the birds took two months to journey to the moon (and the same to get back) spending three summer months on the lunar surface!
Of course, they do not become resident on the lifeless moon but leave these shores in the spring to breed in northern Europe. Being birds, which rely for food upon invertebrate life prised with their long beaks from quite deep underground, as winter advances and frost begins to make the ground difficult to penetrate, they return to these shores. On many frosty winter evenings, I have seen woodcock lurking beside roads to feed in areas where the spreaders' salt-based material had softened those verges thus making the invertebrate life in it accessible.
Perhaps the belief that woodcock spend their summers on the moon emanated from a failure of folk to see them in their woodland setting during the summer months, because of their superb camouflage. This might otherwise be known as 'the invisible bird' for its unique ability to merge into its background and disappear before your very eyes is truly amazing! They are also believed to act as pilots to a variety of other birds migrating from those northern lands such as the tiny goldcrests and short-eared owls. As most folk will know only too well, these in-comers, mythically believed to arrive en-masse at the time of the full moon, augment an already considerable resident population of woodcock, goldcrests and short-ears.
Meanwhile, my wrens remain stubbornly tuneful, repeatedly belting out their astonishing volleys of territorial claims designed to send a strong message to rivals that a winter territory has been well and truly claimed. No message could be louder or more far-reaching and it emanates from one of our tiniest birds. Wrens largely feed on insect life of which, of course, there is a dearth during the winter months. I play host to a pair, which now regularly explore my log store where there are likely to be all sorts of creepy-crawlies and spiders seeking refuge.
Winter can be a tough time for jenny wren - historically, in more ways than you may think. Firstly, because of its minuscule size, a wren can lose body heat very quickly, so prolonged spells of really cold weather can literally be fatal to many of them. Sometimes, wrens will congregate together on cold winter nights as a means of survival. On such occasions, those nest boxes you have put out for the local titmice to use when spring comes, may instead become a means of survival for local wrens.
They can occupy such a box in amazing numbers, huddling together to generate corporate warmth. As many as sixty such wrens have been counted in such a situation, illustrating well that wrens are considerably more tolerant of each other than for instance, robins, which I'm sure would never surrender their individuality in even the coldest of conditions. Even more curious is the fact that such gatherings, which definitely require that surrender of individuality, sometimes exclude wrens not locally based. Often there appears to be a 'bouncer' controlling such gatherings, which may boot out any interlopers, suggesting that whilst territorial integrity is important, nevertheless, there are in existence, loose wren communities.
There used to be another factor, which made winter a difficult time for wrens. Many of you will I'm sure, be familiar with the old tale of how the tiny wren became king of the birds. The title was to be conferred upon the bird that was able to reach the highest altitude. Naturally the eagle was the favourite and duly soared up into the sky. However, unbeknown to the eagle, the wee wren had concealed itself in the eagle's plumage and when the eagle reached its zenith the wren calmly stepped out and flew those vital few inches higher!
All of this makes a nice but mythical story, which incidentally seems to be prevalent in many of the world's cultures in one form or another. However, this little tale apparently took real root in the Gaelic cultures of Scotland and Ireland. There are records of these events from England too, revealed most commonly in the form of wren hunts, mostly performed on St Stephen's Day, more popularly known these days as Boxing Day.
Whilst in some places a captured wren would have had decorations attached to its legs before being released, more widely the wren was killed to be subsequently paraded in great ceremony around the community and lauded - as the smallest of creatures - as king for the day. Sadly, as the dead king! In some instances, the wrens were shot, although you would need to have had a keen eye to accomplish that! There is also a wild variation of dates upon which these rituals would take place albeit that all were held during the winter months.
Alas, jenny wren, you were apparently cruelly persecuted! And yet, as the old saying goes, 'Malison, malisons, mair than tehn, Who harries the Queen of Heaven's wren!'