As we enter December the days draw in. Daylight hours are counted on two hands and winter tightens its grip. Many of the trees are quite stripped of their leaves and already raise bare branches to the sullen grey sky. Others still sport a feathering of remaining leaves. Song-birds, so raucous in Spring, are silenced or sing only in short bursts. The quest for food, still plentiful in the form of berries, insects, worms, will grow ever more urgent as winter progresses. There is a sense of focus, of preparation, of energy conserved for the fight for survival that the months ahead represent. The fight to keep warm, to seek shelter and lie low.
The river, busy in the summer with bevies of feeding duck, geese, darting moorhen, stately swans, is almost deserted now. The ducks seek shelter along its banks. The geese graze on the last green shoots of summer’s grass in the water meadows. Swans appear promptly to feed on the crusts thrown to them by parents and little children, but otherwise keep their distance. Cormorants, gathered in the bare branches of trees that flank the banks, dive deep to feed below the surface of the water as the temperature drops. Even the solitary heron makes an appearance less often.
Hibernation, or over-wintering, is what these familiar creatures are doing. They are adapting, preparing. Summer’s visitors left long since, flying great distances to seek food in warmer climes: swallows, swifts, and the great waves of migratory birds are but a memory now. In Arctic regions where winter brings ice and extreme sub-zero temperatures, many marine mammals and birds migrate to warmer feeding grounds. Others gorge themselves to build fat, to grow thicker coats of fur, and then gradually shut down to sleep out the extreme cold. They are slowing their metabolism to conserve energy and life itself. Heart rate and breathing slow down, body temperature falls.
Extreme hibernation is a hidden, mysterious thing. Childhood stories and nature photographs tell us of bears and their cubs quietly sleeping in cosy intimacy, hedgehogs and dormice, rolled up into tight balls, snoring. While not all animals sleep right through, bears do and even give birth to their cubs in this state of prolonged torpor.
We in our own way make ready to over-winter. As we put on our extra layers, we grow our own thicker fur in the form of gloves, scarves, hats, warm socks and coats, waterproofs. We prepare. We check there is anti-freeze in the car, an ice-scraper to hand. We have the boiler serviced, stock the woodpile, get in coal, get out the winter duvet, the extra blanket. We spend more time indoors. Maybe we light a fire and sit by it. We conserve energy, venture forth less. We return before dark if we can. In the Western world we are no longer limited, as our ancestors were, to winter vegetables and fruits or to carefully storing and preserving meat supplies in advance. However, soups and stews become a more regular part of our diet.
This is the season for comfort foods, for rice pudding and cake. For scones, punches, mulled wine and for mince pies. Our fully hibernating mammals will lose 40% of their body weight in the course of the winter. Not we! However, hunkering down and seeing the cold months out has much to offer if we savour its gifts, the opportunity to read with our children, to sit and talk with good friends. Perhaps we sleep longer, then relish the daylight hours and learn from the dark ones.
Discreetly snoring… Ladybird.