Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 26th March 2021

on .

A Spring Nature Watch from our Archives  

The heron had gone fishing, but it was unlikely to catch any fish! It was standing next to a large pool of rainwater in a field so certainly no fish to be plundered there.

However, the bird’s vigil was not necessarily entirely doomed for there was a possibility that migrating frogs might have taken refuge in this new if temporary water feature. Herons clearly don’t rely entirely upon fish. They are adept at ambushing frogs when they are migrating and indeed are known to consume small mammals such as short-tailed field voles and water voles. They also have a penchant for snatching the odd duckling, given half the chance!

An appetite for voles was demonstrated to me on one occasion, when I witnessed the bizarre sight of three herons marching abreast across a field. From time to time any one of the three would break ranks to dart forward and snatch an unsuspecting vole from the rank grass they were almost wading through. On another occasion – a spring day - I watched a heron busily intercepting frogs freshly emerged from hibernation on a very wide bit of roadside verge.

Herons may already be sitting on eggs for these are early entrants in the race to produce a new generation. Mostly they nest in the tree-tops, often favouring Scots Pine plantations. There is an element of ungainliness about them as they come in to land at their high rise colonies. In song we often hear about ‘the lonely heron’ yet by and large they choose to nest in colonies and I have often observed their communal style of living where young are cared for in crèches.

Yet for all that perceived clumsiness, herons are real killing machines even if they sometimes give the impression of lethargy especially when standing beside or even in the water, shoulders hunched, giving a good impression of being half asleep! But don’t be fooled by the statuesque heron. Believe me, it is wide-awake and completely programmed to act in a flash when prey comes within striking range. When it does, the sleeping beauty is transmogrified into a fast reacting predator, neck now cocked back to strike with the speed of a snake, those piercing yellow eyes utterly focussed, the long, dagger-like beak the deadly killing weapon.

The only time a heron appears to lose its composure is when it strikes and drags an eel from the water. Eels don’t give up their lives readily and may wrap themselves around that long beak in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Now the heron only has recourse to finding a rock against which to beat the offending eel into submission before, once it is comatose, it can at last be ushered down that long neck. Mind you as I have said before, I once saw a heron’s composure completely shattered when out of a clear blue sky hurtled an angry osprey. Herons in flight can be remarkably sedate. On that occasion any such illusion was quickly dispelled as the poor heron was downed into the loch although it did eventually make its way to the shore.

Ospreys – the first of them are already back from their winter sojourn in West Africa – do not of course eat herons, their food requirement is exclusively fish. However, Roy Dennis, that doyen of the restoration of ospreys to this country during those years in the latter part of the last century when they started to return, once asserted that he had seen an osprey catch a rabbit. This was probably the one and only recorded occasion that the ‘fish only’ diet was broken – the only exception to that otherwise strict rule!

Sometimes we can be surprised at what some creatures eat. For example, and contrary to what some folks claim, foxes do not live exclusively upon lambs and domestic poultry. Indeed, the diet of foxes can on occasions be remarkably diverse. For instance you might be surprised how many worms foxes consume, not to mention their appetite for small mammals. Furthermore, later in the year there are more surprises in the enthusiastic consumption of hedgerow fruits, especially brambles.

In this respect they are not alone. Much of the average badger’s food comprises of worms and beetles, which may explain why they can often be found turning over cow pats. They are in fact looking for the likes of beetles, which of course are always interested in such excrement. My own badger watching days were often enhanced by the provision of a scattering of peanuts and of course badgers will enthusiastically plunder wild bee nests.

In recent days there has been a good deal of local pine marten activity - to the detriment of my now much-lamented late flock of hens! Here too there are many misconceptions. Some for instance, might have you believe that pine martens live entirely upon the eggs and chicks of songbirds not to mention hens! Just as is the case with regard to foxes, young lambs are only generally vulnerable for a short period during the spring. So also, the eggs and young of birds are only really vulnerable whilst they are on the nest. Like foxes, pine marten also enjoy the taste of wayside fruits.

They also enjoy the odd hen’s egg! Some years ago, a pine marten discovered a gap in a roof behind which she decided, was the ideal place in the roof-space of a house belonging to a friend in which to make a nest. That summer, we were treated to extensive views of a pine marten collecting food from our friend’s conservatory roof and later to the even more intriguing sight of her two youngsters also enjoying the food willingly provided by an exceptionally generous human!

Another acquaintance, who once lived in an isolated cottage deep in a Highland forest, entertained pine marten regularly in his kitchen – the attraction being of all things strawberry jam sandwiches! Another alternative favourite are peanut butter sandwiches! Pine marten have also been in the news of late because some Scottish born pine marten have been translocated to the Forest of Dean.

There has been a complete turnaround in pine marten fortunes in recent years. Once, of course, they were vigorously hunted almost to extinction. But since coming under the protection of the law in 1978, the rump of them that was left in some remoter parts of the Highlands, has grown out of all recognition and re-colonised territories from which they were expelled long ago.

Since their arrival here several years ago, they have certainly seen-off the grey squirrels, which have happily been replaced by our native red squirrels. If they manage to accomplish a similar feat in the Forest of Dean, one suspects they will be more than welcome and certainly more welcome than the wild boar now apparently roaming that said forest in their hundreds.

It may take time to re-establish martens there because they are not prolific breeders having just one litter a year with usually no more than two off-spring. However, the spread of pine marten throughout Scotland and their re-introduction to Wales is a real conservation success story to be seen alongside the return of the osprey and the re-introduction of the red kite. Furthermore if the martens can devastate the grey squirrel populations there as they have here, they will I’m sure, be doubly welcome!

Weekly Nature Watch 29th January 2021

on .

Among the jumble of birds using my bird-table is a solitary sparrowhawk. I caught it the other day flying into the branches of the rowan tree in pursuit of small birds – almost certainly chaffinches.

It stretched out those long legs hoping to waylay one of those as it tried in vain to get past some of the branches that were obstructing it and, in the end, came away empty handed or should I say empty footed. Somehow the chaffinches had avoided the clutches of its far-reaching feet and it served to illustrate that on occasions, sparrow hawks do fail in their quest for small birds.

To further illustrate the point, some time ago in the summertime, I watched a sparrowhawk fail in its quest to nail a meadow pipit. The pipit flew past the tree in which the hawk had laid its ambush and immediately the hawk launched its attack. However, the pipit was not for catching and dodged this way and that to avoid the hawk. Time and time again, the hawk made a bee-line for the pipit but every time the pipit dodged each advance to such an extent that the hawk eventually tired of the chase and gave up, returning somewhat sheepishly to the tree where it had laid its ambush. It appears that sparrowhawks don’t have much stamina or resolve.

It got me thinking about the unsuccessful sorties birds of prey must periodically make. I’ve certainly watched ospreys dive and miss their targets, presumably when at the last moment a fish dives to avoid the mighty swoop of the bird. Only ospreys do dive deeply so a fish has to be pretty quick to sidestep that dramatic impact. However, it is a fact that ospreys by no means succeed with every dive they make.

The various methods of hunting are as many as there are different birds of prey. Each has its own particular technique. The kestrels I used to watch with such enthusiasm as a lad, either used their lovely hovering flight or occasionally would use a pole – a telegraph pole perhaps – as their aerial vantage point from which to spot a tiny mouse or vole way below them on the ground. However, the full hover is when these particular raptors are at their very best. There is in my view, nothing so beautiful as a hovering kestrel with its wings trembling, tail fanned, it is simply magnificent. However, I do not know whether a kestrel is more successful at the end of its dive than for example, a hawk!

I have often thought the goshawk to be the deadliest attacker amongst raptors. This opinion is gleaned from a single instant when I saw a goshawk launch a very final attack upon a hovering kestrel. It was a very brief attack and it lasted seconds. Wham-bam and that was it. A flurry of feathers drifting down to the ground – the kestrel gone! Goshawks are truly awesome raptors and absolutely lethal. Little wonder that keepers have a pretty jaundiced view of them.

Speed is what does it for peregrines. I well remember being high up in the hills when a peregrine took off from the cliff above me heading down the glen. It seemed miles away but far below me I could see a group of pigeons flying along the floor of the glen. The peregrine was clearly homing in on them and accelerating fast. They say peregrines can attain a speed in the stoop in excess of two hundred miles an hour and I guess this bird was edging towards that kind of speed when it caught up with the pigeons. It singled one out and struck it a mighty blow behind the head. Game, set and match! Magnificent!

I’ve watched hen harriers fly low over moorland – a magnificent sight.  We used to see them patrolling the hedges here during the window months. They flush out small birds from the hedgerows, heather or bracken reaching out for them with their exceptionally long legs. But the real joy of watching hen harriers is to see them in courtship when they become really high flyers and present-bearers. The pair will soar to great heights and the male will drop a ‘present of food’ to the female which she will catch, sometimes by turning upside down. Of course, hen harriers are among the most persecuted of raptors due to their predation upon grouse moors. Yet the presence of some predation surely produces stronger grouse.

Short-eared owls hunt in a similar way, flying low over open moorland, although voles as opposed to small birds, are their principal prey. This is, of course, an owl which unusually does its hunting in daylight hours. In my view, nothing quite looks as facially threatening as a short-eared owl. Somehow, short-eared owls always look very angry indeed, its eyes are simply melting! But then the large eyes of a long-eared owl bear the same kind of threat.

Buzzards, together with kites, are perhaps our most familiar birds of prey, which somehow adapt themselves to many different methods of procuring food.  Although they take a lot of carrion you may also see a buzzard hovering, kestrel-like, as they search for voles and mice. I have also seen a buzzard launch itself hawk-like at a rabbit albeit unsuccessfully, for the adult rabbit, although bowled over by the impact of the strike, survived to reach another day.  However, they do catch a lot of young rabbits. By and large I regard buzzards and kites as opportunistic. I once saw a buzzard seize a blackbird a-la-sparrowhawk. It just happened to be in the right place at the right time – flying past a hedgerow, doing nothing in particular, when a blackbird exploded from the hedge and landed literally in the talons of the buzzard.

Golden eagles rely quite heavily on speed to catch their prey, whilst sea eagles often literally scoop up fish from the surface although occasionally, they will commit themselves to a full-scale dive. Both are awesome predators and take a wide range of prey including mountain hares and ptarmigan. I remember well watching my first sea eagle take off from the shore and soar. Before long, it was no more that a dot in the sky so fast did it climb.

One raptor relies more on its fine-tuned sense of hearing than upon its eyesight. The barn owl has such a sensitive sense of hearing that it can very precisely locate exactly where its prey is and home in on it without seeing it. The juxta-position of the ears – one marginally higher on the head than the other, enables this very precise location. By turning its head, those ears locate exactly where the prey is.

The thread that runs through nature, is perhaps sometimes too much for us to understand, especially the interdependence that runs right through every stage of nature and the reliance that every facet has on the next phase of natural life. It is perfectly true to say that nature is indeed red in tooth and claw.


Weekly Nature Watch - Archived from Feb 2019

on .

There is so much wildlife that we seldom if ever see.

Most of our mammals, for instance, are likely to be about during the hours of darkness when I guess most of us are inclined to remain indoors, cosseted by modern central heating, our attention held by the magic eye of television. Some, I suppose, are glued to their mobile phones or tablets for I remain somewhat disturbed by the number of people who seem completely absorbed by such devices that the world at times appears to pass them by. Many seem utterly oblivious to what is going on around them!

Yet, once the blanket of darkness in the evening then the night descends, out there is a veritable hive of industry. Roe deer emerge from the cover afforded to them by woodland and forests, to graze the surrounding fields. Meanwhile, as alluded to last week, increasing numbers of red deer are seeking the shelter of lowland forests from which they also emerge at night time to exploit the succulent grazing now available to them.

And, new life is already about to come into the world as vixens bed down in their earths in preparation for the birth of this year’s litter of cubs. Many will come into the world in March thus they are initially unseen and indeed we are generally unaware of such moments. Our first sightings of fox cubs may not come until April or even May. Equally unseen are the badger cubs, often also born in March – also of course in their subterranean setts - but usually not glimpsing the wider world until May.

At this time of the year, both foxes and badgers spend a good deal of time in the darkness of the subterranean world below ground, out of sight and for most folk, out of mind. Indeed, badgers live a largely covert lifestyle except for the almost endless days of midsummer. Seldom do they expose themselves to the glare of sunlight. Only when midsummer stretches our days are they likely to be active above ground in broad daylight. Otherwise they remain secure in their underground world. The sett I used to watch, at one time on a nightly basis, many years ago was within a hundred yards or so of a cottage in which for eighty years a country gentleman had lived. Yet this otherwise observant chap had never during his long life ever seen a badger! As said, badgers are covert, night-time creatures!

There is however, another creature, which leaves plenty of evidence of its enduring presence in the fields and occasionally in gardens too but of which we are otherwise largely oblivious. We never even see a single hair of this little fellow, yet we certainly see plenty of evidence of its presence. I refer of course, to those eternal miners known by some folk as ‘mouldiwarps’, by others, especially those with Jacobite sympathies, as ‘the little gentlemen in the velvet coats’! The latter phrase was once a popular Jacobite toast due to the fact that King William – he of the Orange persuasion - was killed when his horse tripped over a molehill. In recent days of little frost and judging by the new lines of mole-hills, which seem currently to be appearing on a daily or perhaps nightly basis everywhere I look,  moles have been very active indeed.

Of course, agricultural man has waged war on moles probably ever since farming took root. Poisons and traps have been employed widely by generations of mole-catchers up and down the country and the grisly spectacle of the bodies of trapped moles hung in line on wire fences used to be commonplace. These days it seems modern day mole-catchers are more discreet and such gibbets seem now to have become a rarity. However, the war on moles has been going on officially for a long time. The legal persecution of moles goes back as far as 1566 when the first Act of Parliament allowing for their control was passed!

And, there was a time when mole pelts were extremely valuable and much sought after by the makers of hats and various forms of clothing. Of course, mole fur, unlike any other pelts, can famously be brushed either backwards or forwards. Indeed, moles can convey themselves through the tunnels they dig as easily forwards as they can backwards because of the ‘two-way’ nature of their fur. However, the phrase, “As Mad as a Hatter”, has more than a grain of truth about it. Regular wearers of hats made from moleskin were in danger of being affected by the chemicals, notably heavy metals such as mercury and lead, which were used in the process of curing moleskins. These substances could slowly be absorbed through the skin of the wearer … with unfortunate consequences! Hence the phrase!

Worms form the bulk of the diet of moles. And worms are of course, greatly valued as aerators of the soil by both gardeners and farmers. Moles are enormously energetic. Entirely unseen by us, they toil ceaselessly in their constant pursuit of worms and of course in the continual expansion of their tunnelled environment by the manic digging of ever more mole highways. Moreover in their constant search for food – a mole can comfortably eat at least three-quarters of its own body-weight in a day – they also devour lots of pests such as wire-worms and leather-jackets. Furthermore, moles collect and store worms, which they disable by biting their heads off ensuring they remain fresh.

Thus, there may well be a counter-argument to those who condemn moles for the damage they do. Indeed, I well recall talking to a farmer in an Alpine meadow in Austria. He was busy spreading the soil from molehills with a cane-like stick and he sang the praises of the moles for excavating such splendid soil! However, if you have a manicured lawn, or a tennis court, bowling green or cricket pitch, apoplexy can result as a reaction to the energetic pursuit of worms conducted overnight by a mole or two!    

It is quite amazing, especially at this time of the year, just how energetic moles can be … underneath our very feet. But everything about them is full of energy. Those JCB-like front feet can move mountains of soil very quickly. But male moles can be aggressive, especially in the spring when they vie to mate with the females. It is when mini mole wars are going on underground that occasionally we may see a mole above ground. Usually it is a male that has just lost a battle and been put to flight. I once saw one such exile. It had been forced out of its tunnel close to a busy main road. At first it tried digging through the tarmac, obviously failing. Thereafter it scuttled across the road, miraculously avoiding the wheels of passing vehicles until it reached the verge. Its massive front claws were quickly put to good effect. Within seconds it had gone!

The evidence of their presence is everywhere to be seen. The war against them may continue relentlessly. Yet for all the efforts of the few mole-catchers that remain, moles continue to retain their reputation as indomitable creators of lunar-like landscapes. Those molehills just keep appearing. Down there in that underground world there is clearly at work an energetic population of dynamic earth-moving workaholics!


Weekly Nature Watch - From Archives (Jan 2019)

on .

The traffic at my bird-table has been busy enough of late with no surprises to speak of. So far I have had no sightings of anything unusual, no nuthatches for instance although I know they are about and only rare visits from great spotted woodpeckers.

In recent years these colourful characters have been regular visitors but not so this winter.  So I presume that with few really hard frosts to speak of to make access to the wee beasties upon which they by choice feed difficult, they must be finding enough natural food.

Thus the offerings I provide are being seized upon by the regular cast of feathered entertainers. There are the usual great tits, bluetits, a solitary coal tit, the inevitable and always argumentative house sparrows, red faced goldfinches, and a pair of collared doves, one of which now regularly manages to perch on one of the feeders in order to get at the sunflower hearts. There are also a couple of smartly speckled starlings which have mastered the art of clinging on to a fat holder in order to peck briskly away at the slab of fat despite being upside down!

A solitary greenfinch is a regular visitor. There used to be a plethora of them but they seem to have gone the way of so many farmland birds. However, if greenfinch numbers have plummeted, the one finch that appears to be comfortably holding its own is the chaffinch, for the ground below the bird-table is usually seething with them. They join the cheeky sparrows and the unobtrusive dunnocks below the bird-table, mopping up the scraps that descend from above from the more adventurous birds that clamber onto the feeders. The unassuming dunnocks are always typically at pains to avoid the melee on the ground, content to just quietly peck away at the scraps on the periphery.

I would guess that of all the birds that are regular visitors to bird-tables up and down the country – it is estimated that around 65 per cent of all British households actively feed birds in their gardens – the chaffinch is universally the most common. The word I used last week to describe mallards, ubiquitous, may perhaps equally be applied to chaffinches. So why are they so successful when so many other farmland birds are in decline?

In fact, chaffinches are perhaps rather more catholic when it comes to diet, compared at least to other finches and buntings, for whilst most finches are extremely dependent upon seeds as their main source of food, chaffinches have a much wider range that includes a surprising degree of insect life. In spring and summer especially, chaffinches feed extensively upon insect life and most particularly, they rely upon insects during the breeding season to a much greater degree than other finch-like birds.

Furthermore, longer wings and a longer tail, compared to other finch-like birds, enhance the flying ability of chaffinches to such an extent that they are even quite adept at catching insects in mid-air. In other words, they are that bit more athletic and versatile. It is not by accident that there is also a plethora of blackbirds currently apparent, another testament to the virtues of a more varied, omnivorous diet. Clearly, the chaffinch shares with the blackbird the benefits from such dietary versatility. These have become survivors whereas perhaps others have become over reliant on dwindling food resources.

One crocus-billed cock blackbird regularly takes up station among the teeming chaffinches, sparrows and dunnocks beneath my bird-table, snaffling as many of the scraps that descend as possible. He reminds me of Gulliver among swarms of Lilliputians! There is also plenty of blackbird activity on my lawn as witness the amount of worm hunting being conducted. They are testament to the ability of blackbirds to switch effortlessly between meat and veg!

Chaffinches also seem to adopt different tactics compared to other finches. Because they are more reliant upon insects than other finches and buntings, their summer territories are much more clearly defined.  This is simply because their more omnivorous feeding requirements means that large territories are unnecessary so are generally smaller than those needed by other finches. Relying more heavily on seed, most finches and buntings generally nest in what may be described as loose colonies simply because they must feed over a wider area. Therefore, they need to be more tolerant of one another and in a sense must share resources.

This tighter territorial integrity of the chaffinch is also reflected in the more positive nature of the chaffinch song. That song, when finally it rings out, is one of the most familiar in both town and country. It may not be one of the first we hear, for the likes of great tits especially are among the earliest of songsters. However, chaffinches are often to be heard quite early partially because with competition for good nesting sites likely to be very keen, they need to be thinking of claiming good potential locations as soon as possible each spring.

Indeed, that competitive edge is further demonstrated by the fact that when winter descends, and chaffinches surrender their individuality and come together in flocks, they mostly do so on a single-sex basis. Furthermore, the birds you are currently feeding in your garden are unlikely to be the birds you will hear when singing in earnest begins in the spring. Chaffinches do migrate albeit usually only over short distances. Meanwhile, the hen chaffinches coming together in their spinster flocks are rather more relaxed, delaying their return to their native heaths in the spring because they are not driven by the need to establish territories.

The chaffinch is as unquestionably one of our commonest birds. And of course, the cock birds are extremely attractive with their prominent pink cheeks and breasts, grey merging with rich brown on their backs, wings flecked with attractive yellow bars and attractive slate grey caps reaching round their necks to the napes of their necks. Their songs are cheery in the extreme, initially faltering as if they are not absolutely sure what follows the first phase – a clearing of the throat perhaps - before that final assertive flourish. Surprisingly, that cheerful little ditty however does not come naturally to maturing cock chaffinches for it is not a built-in part of their genetic make-up.

In other words, young chaffinches have to listen to the voices of other chaffinches and learn to copy them in order to become fully throated songsters. And the fact that they have to learn to sing means that up and down the country there are many variations on a theme with different dialects emerging wherever you go - subtle variations on the same theme - just as is the case with human vocalisation. There are therefore fascinating variations, which reflect the dialects that persist in different places, rather like our ‘fit like’ in Aberdeenshire or ‘ee bah gum’ in Northern England!

Chaffinches survive because, like blackbirds, they are able to exist on whatever foods are available. They congregate around bird-tables in the winter in order to maximise food choice and they have also very successfully adapted their lifestyles in order to carve out a good living from the human environment. They are extremely colourful additions to our gardens and when they start to sing as spring advances, they bring that extra element of pleasure with their cheery little ditties.  





Weekly Nature Watch 25th December 2020

on .

Of white Christmases, I have not been dreaming!

There are those however, for which a white Christmas would not be a nuisance but instead perhaps, a life saver. White hares, which some readers may be surprised to know, are our only truly native hares, brown hares having long ago been imported, depend very heavily on the transmogrification of their fur from brown to white at this time of year. This dramatic change is triggered by the shortening of daylight hours and gives the hare essential anonymity by providing a defence of obfuscation once their native upland heaths succumb to winter snows.   It also provides a chance of eluding even the sharpest eyed eagle, which is their main predatory enemy of course.

However, mountain hares are not the only creatures afforded this change as a means of   protection from predators or in the case of the stoat, when it converts to a white pelage and becomes an ermine, concealment from those it pursues as much as from those which might pursue it. Curiously, when its change of coat occurs, the tip of the stoat’s tail stubbornly remains black! The trio of those creatures donning white clothes as winter descends is completed by the ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family seldom seen in terrain below the two thousand foot contour. However, this mysterious mountaineering bird goes through various phases of plumage, which it changes four times during the year.

Despite recent temperatures remaining somewhat unseasonably high and very wet, the image of a white Christmas persists on the Christmas cards that have come tumbling through my letterbox. This, the most significant of our Christian festivals has undergone considerable change since I waited breathlessly, and thankfully asleep, for the red-cloaked Santa to arrive on Christmas Eve. Today’s high tech Christmas with its galaxy of electronic gadgets, I suppose is not that far removed from the ones I remember and in particular, those in which an electric model railway was at the top of my list of great expectations! Mind you, the operation of that prized gift was simple enough even for my non-technical brain whereas the vast array of gismos now coveted by today’s more technologically adept youngsters defeats me!

At a glance, currently on my mantelpiece there are depictions of a variety of wintry scenes, some suitably sparkly, others picturing reindeer pulling sleighs over the snow or alternatively across the sky and deer lurking shyly among the trees.  There is the usual array of fir trees, holly and ivy, not to mention a handful of Dickensian Christmas images, all glinting in a landscape inevitably coated with snow. Yet significantly, there are also a number of robin redbreast images in this year’s gallery, so at least one tradition appears to be holding its own! Redbreast has probably been one of the most popular images for the designers of Christmas cards for the best part of a hundred and fifty years now.

As it happens, on recent days I have been entertained by a solitary caroller on the bird table. However, this is no surplice-clad choirboy but a tuneful and feathered, glowingly red-breasted chorister whose music is both sweet and warming. And of course, because he is alone as a songster during these shortening winter days, his music stands out amidst a blanket of silence save for the occasional and very much coarser yelling of passing skeins of pink-footed geese and the regular, chirped quarrels of the sparrows. By comparison these offerings, such as they are, represent a more raucous tone.  Redbreasts on the other hand, typically blurt out those little volleys of sweet notes, not necessarily in a melodic order, for I always have had the impression that robins never know quite which notes are coming next when they sing. Constructed, predetermined music is not their way!

He is a very welcome caroller however and as befits a bird which has been one of the images of the traditional Christmas for so long, his place on the mantelpiece is naturally, well deserved. He came to find himself cast in that image because of an association with the very first postmen back in the nineteenth century. Those postie’s wore a uniform, the most prominent feature of which was a vermillion coloured waistcoat. Inevitably they were instantly dubbed ‘robins’ and not surprisingly, the image of robins on some of the earliest of Christmas cards became endemic, often portrayed with little envelopes in their beaks. Such are the images which have earned these bold and attractive little birds their own place in Yuletide history. However, in the early days of Christianity, the robin had already been established as a very special bird when St Mungo, who founded Glasgow Cathedral, was a student and was said to have restored the tame robin belonging to his old master, St. Serf, to life after it had been killed by other students.

The apparent willingness of robins to live happily with human kind would appear to give them a very special place in British hearts although strangely, for some reason continental robins are much less confident. Here they regularly make their nests in such cast offs as old kettles or plant pots and are even known to build their nests in the likes of garden sheds. They can also be an eager presence in gardens, especially if someone is digging as they are always ready willing and able to dine upon the creepy crawlies thus unearthed by the spade.

But there is another, less complimentary side to the robin coin! Yes, he does sing on the dullest of winter days and is usually the only songster during the bleak mid-winter months but those little bursts of song, although sweet on the human ear, in reality are a distinctly threatening signal to other cock robins, a warning on pain of mortal combat and in some cases a fight to the death, not to enter the songster’s territory.

I guess that such behaviour is not exactly in the true spirit of Christmas as we see it. Behind the tinsel,  the sales blurb, all the electronic gadgets, the flashing lights, the ringing cash tills - or this year, the almost continuous delivery of on-line purchases - the true spirit of Christmas is surely a message of peace and love, a celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.  Sadly, Redbreast’s attitude is the very opposite, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own” is his Christmas message, unyielding and unforgiving, full of aggression and the very antithesis of that genre of peace and love.

And yet we nevertheless deeply love and admire that perpetrator of such sweet song, that caroller supreme …  and we adore that bright, distinguished and very audible, truly musical intervention that leaps from the red breast of this attractive bird, He further endears himself visually with those big, appealing, brown eyes. He may in truth be a doughty defender of his own very personal faith but beneath it all, surely his is a cheery celebration to be shared – his Christmas greeting to us all.

At the end of a very difficult year, perhaps above all this is a time for renewed hope of better things to come. My wish for all and everyone is a very Happy Christmas!


Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods