Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THE Winter Solstice is past and we have to believe that the days are lengthening, though I can’t usually detect much difference until well into January. I can, therefore, understand why, since primitive times, it’s been a period when some sort of celebration – ideally involving a lot of firelight, candlelight and cheerful feasting -has been thought necessary. Outside, nature seems dead. But, of course, it isn’t.

On a slightly warmer day earlier in the month I watched clouds of small gnats dancing in the shafts of pale sunlight. Their lives are short – they only need one day to complete their life-cycle, and they appeared to be making the most of it. Not surprisingly an enterprising spider keeps refurbishing its array of lines and webs between our dustbins ready for such bonanza days. Like many much larger carnivores, spiders can wait for a long time between one meal and the next: they can afford to be patient.

My regular badger has stopped coming for his peanut butter sandwich supper. I think his sett is some distance away and, well fattened up over the autumn, he prefers to stay nearer home. Badgers can live off their accumulated fat for some time if the weather is really inclement and prefer to forage closer to home. However, they are active during the winter and, as they get leaner, wander farther afield. I’ve often found their tracks in the snow on the lawn and felt guilty that they’ve found their restaurant closed!

Their social life continues below ground, and there are exciting developments. Badgers can mate at any time of year. The fertilised egg, a blastocyst, is stored in the uterus until about now when it becomes implanted in the uterus wall and starts to develop. Thus, badger cubs are born in late February and early March and grow, learn and eventually romp about below ground, emerging in late April or early May. It’s good to think of all this new life just beginning. January is the height of the mating season for foxes. Their courtship is noisy and you may well hear the staccato bark of the male or the spine-chilling shriek of the vixen on frosty nights.

Plants are preparing too. There are already bulbs appearing in my garden borders – maybe a little rashly. In the countryside, look at hazel or alder and you will find catkins, ready formed but tightly clenched, just waiting for the first Spring days to loosen and fill them with pollen. Yes – it’s all there, ready to begin!