Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 18.1.17

on .

During the next few days, right across the world glasses will be lifted and toasts drunk, to the haggis and of course, to the immortal memory of the life of a humble ploughman, who turned out to be the most gifted of Scottish poets. Amazingly, outside Scotland, the greatest number of Burns Night celebrations will occur in Russia. In Moscow, between this coming Sunday and next Wednesday - the poet's birthday - there will be much celebration, much quaffing of the 'barley-bree' and in general, much admiration shown for everything Scottish.

Of course, we have, with the Russians, a shared patron saint in St Andrew. But the connection with Burns is even stronger, to the extent that his works, which of course, have been translated and are studied widely in their schools. How they translated some of his poems into Russian begs an interesting question, not least, what they made of,

"Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,

Oh what a panic's in thy breastie!

Thou need na' start awa' sae hasty

Wi' bickering brattle!

I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,

Wi' murdering pattle!"

I cannot imagine how that translates into Russian but Burns' egalitarian philosophy, possibly appealed greatly to a post revolutionary Russia, hence his continuing popularity.

Of course, Burns night will be celebrated in many countries, especially with a strong Scottish heritage such as Canada and of course, the United States. However what president Donald Trump, not I suspect an advocate of egalitarianism, (his inauguration is happening on this very Friday) might make of it, goodness knows.

However, the genius of Burns was manifold. He did advocate egalitarianism and indeed he didn't write exclusively in the Scots' tongue, for many of his more serious poems are written in English. This is perhaps a tribute to an education which in the eighteenth century might have been regarded as inadequate. He wrote as a patriot, as a romantic and as a man who loved the landscape and its wildlife.

I may wonder what the Russians make of "Wee sleekit, cow'ring, tim'rous beastie ...." and the rest of that epic poem. Not only does it represent the language of eighteenth century Ayrshire, it also gives us a glimpse into the character of the Bard, clearly a man who was at one with nature. Throughout his poems, especially those of a romantic nature, he fashions a tapestry that gives us more manicured landscape of the twenty first century. Life for Burns in that landscape must have been uncommonly hard. How can we compare today's tractor driver with the ploughman, walking behind a horse-drawn plough, in hail, rain or snow. That was hard work and perhaps was at the root of his early death!

And yet despite his labours, somehow Burns still made the time to observe the creatures of that relatively wild Ayrshire countryside and so often include them in his writings. His use of a whole raft of the Scots' colloquial names is interesting. Some of these names still resonate today. 'Gled' for instance is the old name for a red kite. The buzzard he called the 'buzzard gled' and the cuckoo of course, 'the gowk', a soubriquet still used in modern day language. Interestingly, he also makes reference to 'the craik' which I presume translates as the corncrake then it may safely be assumed considerably more commonplace than it is now, confined as it is, largely to the islands off the west coast.

He also refers to 'the foumart', better known as the polecat, now of course extinct in Scotland. And 'the gor cock' which translates into 'moor-cock', alias the red grouse, which during his time, before the sport of grouse shooting on heather moors had become popular, would have been less common than it is nowadays. Another bird which, like the corncrake, these days is a rare sighting indeed, 'the pailtrick' or partridge - the native grey partridge, not the imported red legged partridge now so commonly released into the Scottish countryside - is frequently featured.

But he definitely had his favourites, which were mostly song-birds. There is no doubt in my mind, that his romantic approach to life, for which he was of course, renowned, was accentuated by the romantic melodies provided by the birds he listened to and included in so many of his works. Chiefly, it was the 'laverock' or skylark, now sadly also becoming something of a rarity in many parts of Scotland that so often moved him. The 'mavis' too appears regularly and was probably more common in his day than is the case nowadays, albeit that in my experience, the song thrush seemed last year to enjoy something of a revival. But predominant throughout his verses, is the 'merle', our still extremely common blackbird, and as sweet a singer as you will hear. Time and again, Burns uses the merle as an adjunct to some real or perhaps, imagined liaison.

The pictures thus painted by him in word, tell us of a much wilder, less tamed and manicured landscape than it is these days. Nor was it of course, anything like as intensively farmed. Burns and his contemporaries in the farming world lived at a considerably slower pace compared with today's mechanised tillers of the land. Perhaps, without modern accoutrements, without gismos such as satellite precision sowing and chemicals, it is little wonder that he was never able to make a decent living from his farming labours.

However, it may well be that the landscape in which he laboured, was then so much richer in terms of its wildlife, than are today's intensively farmed hectares! One of the most serious consequences of the perpetual modernisation of agriculture is indeed the loss of so many of our farmland birds. Comparisons with the seventeenth century farming landscape might well reveal a much wider range of wild birds and animals then ... if the constant references to such a diversity of creatures in the poems of Robert Burns, is anything to go by.

Hereabouts, during the past few decades, there have been many very noticeable casualties. There was a time for instance, when I could hardly look across the neighbouring fields without catching glimpses of brown hares - Burns 'maukin or poussie'. There have been in recent years, been signs of the local hare population experiencing something of a revival, yet compared with say forty years ago, they still represent no more than a rump of their numbers then. In those days the regular hare shoots, then unfortunately so popular with the shooters, seemed more like the start of World War 3!

It will come as no surprise then that I regard one of the most sympathetic of Burns' verses is that to which he surely gave, the longest title of all his poems, "On seeing a wounded hare limp by me which a fellow had just shot at". Its first verse reads thus,

"Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb'rous art,

And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;

May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,

Nor never pleasure glad thy cruel heart!"

Several years ago, I shared the sentiments expressed by Burns in that verse when I came across a hare, which like the one seen by the poet, had indeed been shot at! The poor creature, which, of course I had to put out of its misery, had three broken legs and was accordingly utterly immobilised, condemned otherwise to a slow and agonising death. Yes, I thought, inhuman man! Happily however, most of Burns' wild creature references are entirely benign. Indeed, most of them are seen as intrinsic parts of his landscape backdrops, which were the essence of his romantic poems. Slainte!

Country View 12.1.17

on .

Don Roberto always said that this airt was in his mind, a shadowy place, so often made all the more mysterious by the almost supernatural presence of a slow moving, creeping banks of mist. And indeed, like some gigantic, amorphous, creeping fungus advancing insidiously and silently across the landscape, during recent days those mists have repeatedly hidden the true nature of the landscape from us.

Once upon a time of course, in much the same way, it wasn't mist but the sea that advanced as stealthily to drown the valley, obliterating everything in its path. If Cunninghame Graham had still been around as 2017 emerged, his description would indeed have been confirmed. In the last few days, right across the low ground of his beloved Carse, has hung an all-pervading, all embracing, massive white sheet of seemingly impenetrable mist, ephemeral yet visually, to all intents and purposes, surprisingly solid!

Its cloying mass blotted out the grey green fields, the livestock picking away at the sparse winter vegetation, the drystane walls, the post and wire fences, what is left of the once proudly manicured mosaic of hedgerows and the now leafless trees. It completely obscured the white-washed farmhouses and even the usually obvious old red or green tin roofs of many a farm building, iron sheets which once upon a time were a vital construction material not just for farming man but for people in far flung foreign lands. Corrugated iron was one of those inventions and exports that somehow transformed living conditions right across the world. Maybe it still does in places such as South Africa's shanty towns!

In truth, this slow moving leviathan monster seemed somehow to have a life of its own. Although it hung heavy and still across the low ground, at each side of the valley, where it encountered rising ground, it seemed somehow to be making a real attempt to absorb and consume that too. At its frayed edges, strands of mist broke free from the main body as if attempting to colonise those higher places, which stood above the cloying white mass like floating, isolated islands. Yet somehow, those islands seemed to resist any notion of take-over. Those wandering wisps - like craftily creeping outriders - advanced upwards only to be eliminated, evaporating and disappearing into nothing, as they unsuccessfully reached for the sky.

More distantly, where the Highland mountains rose to the north, pockets of mist - like allies of the main force - lingered in hollows as if waiting to join the main army in order to promote further advancement and perhaps take over the whole landscape. They waited in vain, unused, ultimately unlinked, isolated and seemingly unwanted, dormant in their hidden pockets. But if that giant cloud gave the impression that its very presence was, like a death knell, exterminating life within and beneath its all-pervading cloak, I was wrong. Suddenly and without warning, there echoed from somewhere deep within its veiled skirts, the sound of gabbling geese, muffled at first but slowly growing in volume as its perpetrators clearly took to the air, unseen but increasingly filling the otherwise still and silent air with their clamour.

Pink-footed geese are seldom silent. They come from their Arctic homelands to this part of Scotland to pick away at the stubble and to graze the farmer's fields during the winter months. But in such mode, all heads do not go down. Some remain upright, scorning the chance to eat. There are always those sentinel gees, which take responsibility for the flock's security and so remain constantly alert, ready to give loud and instant warning of impending danger or threat. In this manner, grazing geese are always restless - ever ready to take to the wing and decamp.

Furthermore, they seem to have a sixth sense, which enables them to navigate safely, even when it is dark or indeed when the mist obscures their surroundings. I often hear them flying over me, en route to their watery night-time roost. I can even hear the sound of their beating wings, usually without being able to see a single feather of them. Do geese I wonder, therefore enjoy exceptionally good night-time vision or is it that sixth sense at work?

And whilst geese, especially when they take to the air, do so with much noise and clamour, which may perhaps give rise to the notion that they are something of a rabble, the truth is that compared with other avian communities, they are surprisingly well organised and disciplined. At this time of the year, they may often pattern the skies with their massive skeins, some of them, seemingly stretching over vast areas of sky. But these large skeins are an almalgam of many individual family skeins. Geese live by a strict family code. As I've commented many times before, wintering geese, with their constant banter, do somehow bring us a sonic flavour of those wild Arctic regions.

But from elsewhere behind that great, cloying curtain, now issued more sounds of geese. This was not however, the high pitched clamour of wild pink-footed geese but the deeper, more sonorous sound of the increasing legions of Canada geese which, over the past few decades, have become endemic here ... much, I must say, to many folks' displeasure. Theirs is an altogether less attractive sound. Indeed a brief sighting of a skein of these more lumbering, low flying geese, as they flitted into and then out of vision, ploughing ghoulishly out of the murk and then back into it, was a stark reminder that these are not so much wild as feral geese.

Canada geese, considerably larger birds than our wild northern, wintering geese and consequently accused by the farming community of trashing winter grazing, owe their origins in Britain to the design ambitions of the likes of Capability Brown and many other landscape designers. These were the creators of the 'new look' great estates of England and to a lesser degree perhaps, Scotland which, fuelled by the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, landscaped - at considerable expense - so many of the ancient landed estates. These designers were sticklers for detail and deliberately imported Canada geese to make them a living part of the planning process as embellishments upon the lakes they created, along with a variety of exotic ducks. Inevitably, in time, these decorative populations grew and over-spilled into the surrounding countryside so that a tenuous presence soon became permanent. As I have said, they are feral rather than wild.

There was a time, as the Second World War broke out, when the shooting of Canada geese was encouraged. The idea was that they might provide both a supposed much needed source of extra meat and at the same time offer a much-needed means of control. But with their low, ponderous flight, they offered very inferior sport. Canada geese are not and never have been popular quarries which are perhaps the reason for their continuing prosperity?

So, we are stuck with these aliens! Those roaming, amorphous blankets of mist may temporarily conceal them, just as they hide the truly wild pink-feet but once the mists clear, those large, black and white aliens with a well-earned reputation as bullies are there, sailing the waters of the loch like some foreign armada! They may be handsome birds but they are, I'm afraid, largely unloved!

Country View 4.1.17

on .

Another year has slipped away into the pages of history. As to whether it will come to be regarded as momentous or indeed, a year of tribulations will I guess, be decreed at some future time. Is that light I see at the end of the tunnel ... or a train heading in our direction? That there is already a tad more light during the mornings and evenings however, confirms that the year has turned. The winter solstice is behind us and although we know only too well, that the worst of the winter's weather may yet be to come, we are nevertheless heading inexorably towards spring. Yes, believe it or not, there will be a new awakening - perhaps sometime soon?

Although the New Year opened on a cheerier note with plenty of sunshine, the old year had departed in melancholy mood. However, before the sun's appearance, the local flock of jackdaws had celebrated the presence of brisk breezes to which they responded by hurling themselves around the sky in a truly joyous display. Grey skies or not, they were going to make the very best of times out of the very worst of times.

Their exuberant antics are somehow reminiscent of play-time at some schools I remember. The bell goes, the doors fly open and there are kids running every which way; some chasing, some being chased, involuntary games of 'tig' sending some dodging the attentions of others. That's exactly what those mischievous jackdaws seemed to be doing, grey, melancholy day or not! For them, it was fun time, whatever the weather.

I thought I heard a little snatch of music a day or two prior to Christmas. It wouldn't be the first time I've found myself being serenaded during the Festive Season, for the bright lights of many a town or city and the extra heat provided by the Christmas lights can play tricks upon some avian carollers. I well remember taking a last-minute shopping trip to the capital city one Christmas Eve. As you may imagine, carols were blurting forth from various loud speakers, the lights were twinkling, and the traffic roaring, yet above all that din rang out the unmistakable song of a cock blackbird. His music seemed to emanate from the well-lit trees in the gardens and by the sound of it, he really was warming to the task and imagining that spring was on its way!

And indeed, it was the sound of a sudden snatch of blackbird carolling that attracted my attention a few days ago. Blackbirds are, of course, exceptionally adaptable birds, as familiar a sight perhaps here out in the sticks as they are in many a town or city garden or park. They are especially evident on my lawn where a whole host of them patrol in their constant search for worms. Innumerable numbers of them also spend hours beneath the bird-table picking up scraps dropped by the more adventurous and agile members of my avian community.

Of course, blackbirds are extremely omnivorous, delighting equally in pulling worms from the soil or indeed feasting of the likes of bird seed, scraps of cheese and at this time of year, the delicious remains of Christmas pudding, cake or indeed mince pies! In other words, they can survive on almost anything, which is probably why they are prospering hereabouts and in general. Especially noticeable among the many 'merles' as Burns dubbed them, currently occupying these quarters, are the yellowed-billed - crocus billed as one poet put it - cock birds. In the current grey conditions these colourful accoutrements stand out like 'high vis' waistcoats, a feature which will doubtless have been noted by the plainer females.

Such bold coloration is a sign of good health and vigour and accordingly it registers a very big plus point, in so far as the females are concerned, an important element perhaps when they come to the selection of their mates ... the females' prerogative of course! A vigorous male is exactly what they want as the father of their off-spring. However, brightly coloured bills can come and go depending upon the food available and prevailing conditions. A cock bird with a veritable beacon of an orange bill, can within days, go a little 'off colour' should the quality of food deteriorate. So it is easy to see why they seem to be such avaricious feeders!

It may seem premature to be talking of such things yet down the years, I have come across some surprisingly precocious blackbirds. Indeed, I have on more than one occasion, come across blackbird nests, not only complete in structure but also with a new clutch of eggs in situ before the end of January! Often such early clutches fail due to the sudden arrival of wintry weather or indeed due to food shortages which cause both cock and hen to temporarily abandon the incubation process in order to find food, the eggs quickly chilling in their absence and thus failing. Undeterred by such false dawns, a pair of blackbirds is soon at it again and producing further clutches.

However, as much as blackbirds enjoy feasting on worms and other creepy crawlies, they are also avid consumers of berries. Every year I watch with some amusement, the starlings and the blackbirds vying for their places at the 'rowan berry table'! And each year, in their efforts to be at the front of the queue, the blackbirds descend upon my annual crop of rowans earlier and earlier. They clearly keep a very watchful eye on them albeit that these days they seem hardly to wait for them to fully ripen before consuming them en masse.

However, as the years roll by our local blackbirrds must be quite miffed when from out of nowhere and utterly unpredictably, they find their winter berry reserves plundered almost overnight. It doesn't happen every year for the culprits guilty of this heinous crime only come here occasionally. Those eager berry consumers which, by contrast with the 'all-black merles', provide us with a real splash of exotic colour when they arrive usually in mid-winter, are of course waxwings.

Every now and then we suddenly find ourselves playing host to large numbers of these Scandinavian birds which literally descend upon the remains of the berry crop like ravening hordes and thus temporarily overwhelm the blackbirds and indeed any other consumers of berries by their sheer weight of numbers. These waxwing visitations are known as 'irruptions' and usually occur in years when these Arctic based birds have on the one hand, enjoyed a productive year but are then frustrated when the Scandinavian berry crop fails.

When they come - and there are numbers hereabout this winter - they more often than not descend upon the suburban and even urban areas where the 'amenity' planting of berry-bearing trees and shrubs gives them a first-class opportunity to demonstrate their utter avarice. Waxwings don't sit around idly. They feed with an enthusiasm that would put Jack Spratt's wife to shame! For instance a daily intake of a thousand berries by an individual waxwing is by no means unusual.

When I see waxwings, I always think they really should come, not from the frozen Arctic but from somewhere in the tropics. They are so exotic looking with their prominent head crests, basic pinkish body plumage, striking black face masks and chins, flashing black, white and yellow wings, yellow tipped tails and otherwise, hints of grey and chestnut about them. The final embellishments are of course those brilliant red spots at the elbows of their wings, resembling drops of wax, which of course give them their name.

These visiting exotic hordes are worth looking out for and if you're lucky enough to see them, just watch those berries disappear ... like snow off a dyke! And then, when the berries are stripped, they simply move on leaving the blackbirds to ponder the empty branches.

Country View 30.12.16

on .

Santa has put his feet up and can now rest for another year. The few remaining turkeys can relax in the knowledge that they too are safe for now. Yet Christmas has not really been the happiest time for domestic poultry! For instance, the threat of avian influenza has meant that my motley little flock had had to be confined to a life indoors because of an order issued by the authorities which demands that all poultry must be kept isolated from I wild birds. Mind you, I guess that they therefore managed to miss the passage of both Barbara and Connor as a result!

However, I find this restrictive decree slightly puzzling in view of the fifty million (at the latest count) pheasants released during the past year and currently wandering about the British countryside. I would have thought that they might have posed a rather more serious threat of transmitting bird 'flu due to their wilder state, their consequent regular contact with wild birds and the likelihood of closer contact with far travelled migrants! Migrating birds, it is said, are the likeliest sources of infection. However, whatever else we can do, we cannot stop the global movement of birds!

As much as we wonder at the remarkable spectacle that is the story of bird migration, this now well-studied phenomenon totally baffled our ancestors. The very concept of millions of birds translocating across thousands of miles - and twice a year at that - was beyond the thought processes of folks who, compared with modern generations, mostly knew very little about the world beyond their own home patch. Indeed, despite the remarkable pace of change in terms of universal travel that has occurred within my own lifetime, I have nevertheless known people whose knowledge and experience of the wider world has not been expanded, resulting in some whose experiences have been surprisingly restricted and narrow.

For instance, I once had cause to know a farm worker, who toiled away daily on his brother-in-law's farm in the remote Northern Pennines. This hard working soul freely admitted that he had never seen the sea...which was incidentally, not more than thirty miles from where he lived! Indeed, he was moved to enquire as to what the sea looked like! I recalled a line from a play written by J.B. Priestley - "I once went to Barnsley," the character in the play declared. For my farm-based friend, Barnsley, probably fifty or sixty miles south of his moorland home, could have been on the other side of the world or indeed the moon for all he knew! His extremely limited view of the world may have been unusual in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet such were the limitations placed upon my very real farm worker and upon Priestley's fictional character in his Yorkshire based play that such oddities did still occur even in the confines of the rapidly shrinking world of the nineteen sixties!

Goodness knows what my farm worker friend might have made of the logistics of bird migration or indeed what he eventually made of television. In the nineteen sixties, when I knew him, TV was an invention that had not reached the remote countryside in which he dwelt and worked. I wonder too, what he must have made of the sea when he finally got to see it, probably on a minuscule television screen! My ten year old grandson cannot believe that there were people around during my lifetime that, in the nineteen sixties had neither seen the sea, watched television nor indeed had the faintest notion as to what a computer was! But then I too, am by comparison with this extremely modern child, an absolute Luddite!

Thus, as one who is old enough to recall people living in such real isolation, the recent exploits of a dedicated ornithologist in following the migratory journey of Berwick's swans from Northern Russia to their eventual destination at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, is utterly mind boggling! The fact that she followed them using a motorised para-glider, known as a 'para-motor', is even more mind-blowing. Here we are approaching the seventh day of Christmas. Upon this day, the carol tells us, an unlikely romantic sent his 'true love', "Seven swans a swimming" and here is this young lady flying with not seven but hundreds or even thousands of swans across 7,000 frozen miles of northern skies! Bear in mind that throughout her three-month long journey, she was as exposed to the treacherous weather of northern Europe as the swans themselves. They however, are clad in a suit of feathers, which have evolved over millions of years, whilst she had to rely upon modern clothing technology. Rather her than me!

The reason for this extraordinary, life risking adventure, perhaps the most amazing piece of avian research ever undertaken, was to try and find out why the population of these swans has been falling so alarmingly. In hindsight, what she discovered was not altogether surprising. One fact seemed to stand out above any other. The people who inhabit the truly remote northern regions of Russia (the Northern Pennines by comparison would seem more like the very epicentre of human civilisation) seem to remain in many ways, locked in a time warp. They are, she discovered, guilty of shooting the swans because they had come to believe that they scared off the geese which regularly fly in formation with the swans and which they shoot as a means to an end...to eat! They are apparently also aware that the swans are protected but believe that this protection is because they appear in fairy stories!

What those isolated northern folk made of this dedicated lady's exploits aboard what in essence is a motorised kite, all in an academic pursuit of birds, which they randomly kill and perhaps eat, makes for some interesting speculation! Perhaps our problem is that we have become far too sophisticated and indeed perhaps, too full of our own apparent knowledge in comparison with those simple folk who survive in real wilderness. Thus we add huge complexities to our lives, whereas those northern folk, detached from the world, as we know it and living perhaps a simpler if extremely testing lifestyle, see things in a less complicated, more practical manner!

Nevertheless, this was an outstanding piece of work concerning the smallest of the world's swans, similar though they are to the whooper swans we play host to each winter, which are also intrepid autumn travellers. Whoopers also breed in Arctic regions. The ones that winter here all come from Iceland but other populations from areas adjacent to that inhabited by Bewick's in Northern Europe, winter in other parts of Europe. A good number of years ago, I was lucky enough to spot a Bewick's swan off the Ayrshire coast. It was the first one to have ever been spotted in that part of Scotland and the only reason I was able to identify it as a Bewick's swan was because it had been dyed yellow in an effort to trace its movements. It was a sighting long pre-dating such contraptions and para-motors. Thus, it was in those days I guess, much easier to catch the bird and dye it than try and fly with it!

There will be readers I'm sure, who may be moved to think that such high-flying exploits go way beyond the pale. However, as we say farewell to 2016, that intrepid traveller has most certainly made her mark. Therefore, she is my personality of the departing year without question! I hope you and she all have... A Guid New Year!

Country View 21.12.16

on .

On Saturday night Santa will be careering across the world's skies, his present-laden sleigh hauled of course by his reindeer, traditionally named as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph - he of the red nose - is very much a twentieth century addition to that list. These deer are usually associated with Arctic northern latitudes, especially with Lapland, where reindeer are absolutely central to the lives of the native Sami people there. However, there are also herds of reindeer to be found in Russia, Norway, Svalbaard and Greenland. In North America, they are known as caribou.

Long ago, it seems wild reindeer were also present here in Scotland. There are a number of legends associated with reindeer hunts from way back in our history. For instance, we are told of a twelfth century hunting party, led by the Earl of Orkney, chasing reindeer across parts of the far north of Scotland, albeit that much doubt is thrown over this story which may in reality have been about a pursuit of red deer not reindeer. More curiously, there is an even stranger tale of a centuries old 'horn dancing' ritual still held every September in the unlikely lowland location of Staffordshire, apparently celebrating the former presence there of reindeer and so presumably also telling of reindeer hunting exploits.

These days, there is, of course, a herd of reindeer well established in Scotland. The Cairngorm based reindeer farm was established back in the nineteen fifties and is now being expanded and re-located, although still in the Cairngorms. Indeed, for the British leg of his journey, Santa is said to use reindeer from the Cairngorms! However, our single herd of Scottish reindeer is perhaps, not seen as being commercially valuable as the massed herds that exist in Lapland where not only do the Sami folk eat lots of reindeer meat and indeed sell it too, but also clothing themselves by using reindeer hides. Other parts of the animals are converted into coats, boots and even canoes! In other words the lives of those northern peoples are utterly intertwined with the lives of reindeer.

Reindeer are unusual in that both sexes are equipped with antlers. In addition, their large, splayed out feet, compared with the dainty 'slots' of our more familiar red deer, are also ideal for running across deep snowfields. Reindeer however, are also extremely docile animals and having spent a little time among them some years ago, I'm surprised that they allegedly survived into the twelfth century in what was then a hunting mad Scotland! Because of their temperaments and extremely docile nature, it is hard to imagine that they could ever have provided huntsmen with even passable sport! They would certainly have been exceptionally easy to kill, which is probably why they died out here. However, elsewhere in Northern Europe, where the main predator of reindeer is the wolf, modern herds of reindeer are well protected from this arch predator by the folk who entirely depend upon the herds for their living.

But reindeer, in defending themselves from such predators, do have a unique asset denied, as far as I know, to any other animal on this planet, in that they can see exceptionally well in extremely low light due to their ability to receive ultra violet rays. This does apparently provide an effective early warning system as to the presence of wolves, enabling the deer to take evasive action and make themselves scarce at the first, distant sign of approaching wolves. Their main sources of food are lichens and mosses and they use both antlers and hooves to dig through the snow that is a permanent feature across their Arctic environments in order to uncover the vegetation they require for sustenance.

However it seems that reindeer are now threatened by the incidence of global warming and recent reports from Russia, tell us that unusually, the average weight of reindeer in places such as Spitzbergen has fallen by some twelve per cent over the course of the past sixteen years. This weight loss is thought to be due to the increasing incidence of precipitation falling in the form of rain rather than snow, which in the low temperatures of those northern latitudes, then freezes, preventing the reindeer from getting through to the vegetation they need. The resultant lack of an intake of nutrients in turn means that reindeer calves are being born under weight, never managing to catch up. Similar weight losses have been recorded elsewhere and in Russia it is reported that a few years ago in the winter of 2013, reindeer depths on Siberia's Yamal Peninsular rose dramatically for the very same reason. Again it seems, rain replaced snow, only to freeze solid and deny the animals access to those vital food resources.

Nevertheless, the world's children should not fret. Santa's reindeer hauled sleigh is expected to complete the mammoth task of delivering presents to the 700 million children currently thought to inhabit this planet. Researchers have calculated that as the world's population continues to grow, so too does Santa have to speed ever faster on Christmas Eve to complete his rounds. It is calculated that in order to complete the task on that single night, the sleigh careers through the sky at an approximate speed of six million miles per hour!

Which is precisely why, not even the sharpest child ever enjoys as much as a glimpse of the bearded gentleman in the red suit as he completes his rounds. Half a blink of the eye and he has gone! Incidentally, further research is based inevitably upon Einstein's theory or relativity - which as everyone knows is the end all and be all of everything! To achieve such velocity, University academics have discovered, Santa, his reindeer and indeed his present laden sleigh as a consequence, shrink to such minuscule proportions as to enable him to scale even the narrowest of chimneys in the process. However, perhaps that's another reason for those weight-shedding reindeer?

Furthermore, with so many of today's presents being heavier and bulkier due to modern technology (with or without batteries!), it is thought that Santa has been forced to recruit more and more teams of reindeer in order to fulfil his commitments right round the world. It has to be hoped of course, that he can dodge the shells and rockets around war torn Aleppo and indeed reach every single child whether threatened by warfare or indeed anywhere where children are struggling against abject poverty and indeed, starvation, wherever they are.

Perhaps, above all Christmas is a time for renewed hope of better things to come and indeed all of us should remind ourselves that this is a time when our thoughts should always be directed towards those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Giving, as it says in the Good Book, is more blessed than receiving. My wish for all of them and of course, for all of you, 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