JENNY STEEL    The Countryside in January




How to Create a Wildlife Friendly Garden - BBC Easy Gardening

Growing the 10 Best Plants for Wildlife in your Garden - BBC Gardens Illustrated

A Flavour of April in your Wildlife Friendly Garden - Country and Border Life

The Rural Craft of Hedgelaying in Dorset - The Countryman

Managing your Garden in October  - Country and Border Life

The Historic Welsh Gardens of Plas Tan y Bwlch - The Countryman

Looking after the Bees in your Garden - Daily Express

Making Wildlife Ponds the Easy Way - Daily Express

Wings over Mull - a Centre for Birds of Prey - The Countryman

A New Garden for Wildlife with Butterflies in Mind - Butterfly Conservation

The Extraordinary Wildlife Art of Ian and Richard Lewington - Limited Edition Magazine

'I went to Noke and Nobody Spoke' - Fascinating Otmoor - Limited Edition Magazine

Gardening on the Wild Side of Town - New Consumer Magazine

Peter Parks and the Great Rainforest Project - Limited Edition Magazine

The Countryside in January - Limited Edition Magazine

The Countryside in May - Limited Edition Magazine

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Contact Jenny to find out more about her freelance writing




Apple tree prosper, bud, bloom and bear
That we may have plenty of cider next year

January can be a bleak month when low, grey cloud dominates our skies and the countryside seems damp and drear.  Birds are foraging for whatever food they can find, but many mammals and insects are sitting tight in protected places, waiting for a clear bright day and a little warmth from the sun before leaving their shelter.  But for us, Christmas has passed and we all naturally start to look ahead with optimism to spring.  In the past country folk saw this month as important in many respects.  The farming year started now and many traditions reflect that fact.  ‘Wassailing’, from the Anglo Saxon for 'good health' has been associated with Christmas and the New Year for many hundreds of years.  It is likely that the offering of a toast to your neighbours and friends at this time of year was transformed in country districts to a tradition of wassailing, or wishing health, to crops and animals.  Traditionally wassailing was performed on January 17 (or January 6, Twelfth Night, after the adjustment of our calendar in 1752) and apples trees in particular were singled out for special treatment.  Groups of country folk went from farm to farm to offer a toast to the trees in the form of a spiced alcoholic drink containing roasted apples, in the hope that they would bear a good crop.  In some areas this ritual is still taken very seriously, and involves singing, dancing and copious amounts of cider! 

Tracks in the snow  A white Christmas seems to be quite unusual in recent years, but a sprinkling of snow is not unheard of in January.  Out in the countryside it gives us an opportunity to look at tracks made by mammals and birds and occasionally a story is there to be unravelled.  This can be a good time to take a better look at the birds around us, as cold weather may make them a little less shy as they search for food in the hedgerows and on the ground.  Look out for ‘charms’ of goldfinches on teasels, flocks of tits in trees and hedgerows, and thrushes and blackbirds where berries still remain on rowan, hawthorn or holly.  

Snowdrops  Very few flowers brighten our January days, but in woods everywhere there will be snowdrops coming into bloom this month.  Once established, this little bulb can spread prolifically, but is it a native wildflower or an escape from gardens?  It is very likely that many of the snowdrops we see in local woods were introduced, although it does grow in wild habitats on the Continent and is regarded as a native in northern France.  The dilemma is that snowdrops were not recorded growing wild in this country until the 1770s but prior to that there were several references to them in old herbals as garden flowers, so we will probably never know for certain if they are truly wild or not.  One of our earliest flowers to bloom, in some areas they carried the name snow-piercers and in villages were often planted in the garden to mark the path to the outside privy! 

Willow pollarding  All along our river banks a form of traditional management may be taking place this month.  Pollarding of trees, especially willows, is an ancient craft whereby branches are removed at about head height every five to ten years, giving these trees a characteristic mop-shaped head as they re-grow in the spring time.  In the past this was done for several reasons.  Cutting the trunk at this height meant that all new branches were well out of the way of browsing cattle.  The crop of willow rods was used for making a variety of things including hurdles and baskets.  Willows have a tendency to drop their branches as they get old and heavy, creating a danger for livestock and sometimes blocking waterways, and the rather fragile nature of the tree sometimes leads to the trunk splitting open.  Regular pollarding considerably prolongs the life of the tree, but sadly once this management stops there is a tendency for a willow to become top heavy causing branches to fall and the trunk to split. The aptly named ‘crack-willow’ often has wizened and cleft trunks where birds nest and a variety of different plants take root.  Willows can reach a great age and their bark, which contains a natural form of aspirin, has long been used for the treatment of arthritis, headaches and pain of all kinds. 

Lichens  With so little in flower and the bright berries of autumn rapidly disappearing, our countryside can look bleak and colourless.  All around us though on tree trunks, paving, stone walls, on the ground and even on the roofs of farm buildings, are many varieties of colourful lichens in a range of shades from silvery grey to bright yellow.  These small, slow growing plants are an intriguing association between a species of fungus and an alga, a system which benefits both organisms.  The fungus usually determines the form of the plant and the algal cells are enclosed within its tissues.  Lichens, like some mosses, are capable of surviving extreme desiccation and these remarkable little plants are often used as indicators of levels of air pollution as most species only thrive in clean air. However the most noticeable species at this time of year is the bright orange Xanthoria which grows even in polluted environments. 

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017