As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens’ according to the old country maxim, but even now there are signs of spring, and one of the first to appear are the fluffy yellow catkins of the hazel. The catkins are the male flowers, but if you look closely it is possible to see little clusters of red threads which are the female flowers and flowering early gives hazel an important advantage as the leaves don’t interfere with the pollen flow. On the downs, gorse is also in flower with its luminous yellow flowers smelling of coconut. In the New Forest, where it is called ‘furze’, it has been used as a fuel, a medicine and is still an important winter food source for the ponies.
Within the hedges, the holly, sloe and hawthorn berries have all been stripped bare but January is when ivy berries blacken and ripen providing much needed sustenance. According to the RSPB, ivy berries contain as many calories as a Mars bar and are greedily demolished by blackbirds. In churchyards and along drove roads, red juicy, but poisonous, yew berries are being consumed by thrushes and their exotic looking cousins from Scandinavia – fieldfares and waxwings. Known locally as ‘Hampshire Weed’, the yew sows itself liberally and, if undisturbed, can live for thousands of years. (Some churchyard yews are older than the church they stand alongside). The dense dark foliage can form wild anarchic shapes sometimes meeting over roads to form yew tunnels like the one near Farley Mount near Winchester.
At the foot of the hedge, among the crumbling ruins of last year’s hogweed, the first snowdrops are making their appearance and by the end of the month we will see the early primroses and the bright yellow flowers of the lesser celandine. The scarlet goblet shaped elf cup fungi, like viscous jam tarts, are often in evidence too. The red stems of wild dogwood and golden willow set the river banks alight and higher up in the tall poplars, pom poms of pearly mistletoe are easy to spot in the leafless trees. Grown from seed, one per berry, they are spread by mistle thrushes and blackcaps wiping their beak on the branch.
As the cold grips the countryside, this is a time for survival. Herons will occasionally resort to eating moles and coots, jays will dig down through the snow for acorns using landmarks above as a guide and squirrels share nests to keep warm. Apart from the territorial outbursts of robins and wrens, many birds are mute but as February beckons you will hear the repeated phrases of the song thrush as it rehearses its repertoire. In open farmland, enormous roosts of corvids continue their raucous commentary. Rooks and jackdaws join forces in the winter to share information about food sources separating again in February for the breeding season. At night, the tawny owl is active particularly during the full moon. Young birds are reaching maturity and looking for new homes while older birds are fighting on to their patch. Duets may be heard with the female making a ke-witt sound and the male answering with a distinctive hoo-hoo.
All along the country lanes, the hedgerows are crowned with the white fluffy seed heads of Old Man’s Beard or Traveller’s Joy. This wild clematis thrives in Hampshire’s chalky soils and the ribbed stalks snake their way through anything in their path. They are the ‘tangled bine stems’ of Thomas Hardy’s famous new year poem, The Darkling Thrush, first published on the 29th December 1900.
The Ninth New Year Plant Hunt, organised by the Botanical Society of Great Britain will take place from 1st-4th January 2020. Send any sightings to www.bsbi.org/new-year-plant-hunt