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Winter wonders

December is a month of short days, long evenings and festive cheer as we fight the darkness with twinkly lights, presents and parties. Even though the daylight hours are short, you can still witness nature’s splendours in the flight of geese at dusk or the large flocks of waders that meet on coastal estuaries. My favourite moment is hearing birdsong on a mild day, which brings the promise of light returning. This year’s winter solstice falls on 22 December at 03:21 UTC, the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere and the first day of summer (summer solstice) in the southern hemisphere. Will it be a white Christmas this year? History tells us snow is more common at Easter because sea temperatures remain warm in December, and offshore winds bring in a milder climate on land. Our garden wildlife watch this month is mostly of birds such as tits and wrens, looking for food. They need to eat continuously throughout the day so it’s a good idea to clean and replenish your bird feeder. And as we look back on 2023, let’s take a moment to celebrate with our loved ones and make a collective wish for a wonderful new year ahead. Merry Christmas!

Will it be a white Christmas this year? History tells us snow is more common at Easter

January is the month of snowdrops and celandines. A wayward bumblebee might be heard buzzing around this month, reassuring us of the underlying movement of the Earth to bring back spring. If you see a large bumblebee on the ground, it is often a queen that has awoken early from hibernation. Mix some sugar and water, put it in a small bottle top and help her drink to regain her strength. Also watch out for red admiral butterflies making an appearance on a sunny stone wall. Slowly the landscape is coming alive, so it’s a good time to prune fruit trees and summer-flowering shrubs, keeping them healthy and encouraging them to have a good shape. It’s also time to tend to your indoor plants: if you want to reap what you sow, use a heated propagator or a large windowsill to grow chillies, aubergines, peas and sweet peas. Sowing seeds is full of hope and renewal, a perfect activity to get the year started.

Positive Ecological Restoration Stories

Scottish wildcats roam free
A breeding programme operated by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) has released nineteen young wildcats into a pine forest in the Scottish Highlands to rescue the species from extinction. This is the first time a predatory mammal has been rewilded in the UK. The project was created to counter the effect of significant losses of native woodland as well as human persecution. Each cat has now been fitted with a GPS tag to track their movements and behaviour. “It has been really positive, in the main,” said Dr Helen Senn, who leads the RZSS project. “We have seen evidence that the cats are able to hunt and fend for themselves. From that perspective, we’re really happy.” There’s currently a positive groundswell of support for species recovery projects, she added. “Seeing success creates positivity and it generates hope. Conservation can be quite depressing and I think it’s really important that people feel it can make a difference.” 

Holly glee
An “extinct” Brazilian tree species called the Pernambuco Holly has been rediscovered in the northeast of the country. Until now, the only record of this plant was catalogued in 1861, when these trees were part of the Atlantic Forest. “The moment when we found Ilex sapiiformis it seemed that the world had stopped turning its gears,” said local researcher Juliana Alencar. “Finding a species that hasn’t been heard of in nearly two centuries doesn’t happen every day. It was an incredible moment, and the emotion of it was felt throughout the entire team.” Milton Groppo, a researcher at the University of São Paulo, added “it was like finding a long-lost and long-awaited relative that you only know by
old portraits.” 

Gran-iflora
Nonagenarian botanist Dr Margaret Bradshaw is often drenched by horizontal rain when out on her horse scanning the ground for rare and arcane plants. She has spent her life mapping and restoring unusual plants threatened with extinction in Upper Teesdale, between the Durham and Yorkshire Dales. A crusader for saving rare plant species, especially in the rich habitats of Widdybank and Cronkley Fell, her finds include Spring Gentian, Hoary Whitlowgrass and Dwarf Milkwort. “We’ve got various buildings in the country – Stonehenge, Durham Cathedral, and others; if they were crumbling away, there would be groups and money helping stop it, because people would say: ‘We can’t let this happen’”, she notes. “These flowers’ communities are much, much older, and in some respects they are more beautiful.” At the age of 93 she set up the Teesdale Special Flora Research and Conservation Trust, which records rare plants and attracts passionate supporters of her work.

Sky Events

On 4 December, Mercury will be at its highest point: look out for the planet in the western sky after sunset. The Geminids meteor shower arrives this month and produces up to 120 meteors per hour at its fullest; the best time to view is the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th. Considered the best meteor show of the year, especially with clear skies and a new moon, looking to the night skies is highly recommended mid-month. The meteors will radiate from the constellation of Gemini but can appear anywhere in the sky. Look out for the full moon known as the Long Nights Moon or the Moon Before Yule on 27 December.

The Quadrantids Meteor Shower reaches our skies on 3 and 4 January, delivering up to 40 meteors per hour. If you have a star constellation app, look towards the constellation of Boötes, also known as the Herdsman. On 12 January, you can view the planet Mercury above the horizon in the eastern morning sky. The full moon occurs on 25 January. This moon was known by Native American tribes as the Wolf Moon, since it was a time of year when wolves could be heard howling from hunger. It is also known as the Old Moon and the Moon After Yule.

Tides

Spring: 13th-14th and 28th-29th December
Neap: 6th-7th and 20th-21st December
Spring: 12th-14th and 26th-28th January
Neap: 4th-6th and 18th-20th January

Andreas Kornevall is a Swedish storyteller, author and ecologist. He is the Director of Operations for the Earth Restoration Service Charity based in the UK

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