WHEN IS the first day of winter? Weather forecasters tend to favour December 1st, while according to old almanacs it traditionally falls later that month around the solstice of the 21st and 22nd. In modern times, though, most people point gloomily to the day the clocks go back, which happens to be this coming Sunday.
Nature has other ideas, however, and if last year is any guide I’ll have a winter-defying large tortoiseshell butterfly sunning itself in my garden in the second week of November or a hedgehog snuffling for beetles and worms among fallen leaves when it should be hibernating in a nearby hedge bottom.
With just a few days left before the darker nights no one has told my local population of bees, which continue to work the still-blooming salvia and nasturtiums, or pipistrelle bats which roost in the eaves of neighbouring houses and on milder nights still emerge at dusk to hawk for insects.
In recent years winter has, for me at least, always officially begun with the appearance on my seed feeder of parties of siskins, an energetic member of the finch family that’s smaller than the greenfinch, with which it is sometimes confused. Through the spring, summer and early part of the autumn siskins remain in woodland eating the seeds of conifers, birch and alders, but as soon as the first frosts start to bite they never fail to turn up in my garden and bring autumn to an abrupt halt.
Every place, it seems, has a wildlife event which heralds the onset of winter. In the area of Pennines extending south from the M62 it is usually marked by the appearance of mountain hares casting off their brown coats and replacing them with white fur. The moult begins in October and may not be complete until December although, even then, totally white mountain hares are pretty rare.
In the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve winter is marked by the arrival of large numbers of whooper swans from Iceland, something that’s expected any day now. The first birds to appear use local fields to refuel before continuing southwards to their usual wintering grounds on the North Norfolk coast and the Ouse Washes, while the later birds - around 150 in number - tend to stay in the Lower Derwent until the middle of March.
Whooper swans are not, so far as I know, considered harbingers of hard winters like their smaller cousins, Bewick’s swans, which worryingly have this year arrived in England from Siberia earlier than at any time in the past half century, suggesting to some weather-lore watchers that we are in for a big freeze-up.
The ripening of plump scarlet berries on holly trees is another classic winter symbol, although I don’t believe the superstition that more berries than usual means that a hard winter is imminent. Four years ago there was a bumper crop and the following February was one of the warmest since records began.