Oxhill News

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South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

December 2005


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Nature Notes 

The word “winter” is of Old English origin.  It is thought to be related to the word “wet” probably with reference to its weather as it is the coldest and darkest time of the year.  Astronomically winter is the period from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox, around 22 December to 21 March.  A pagan festival celebrated the winter solstice and was known as Yule or Yuletide which more or less covered the twelve days relating to what we know as Christmas.  Traditionally a Yule log was ceremoniously dragged in from the woods on 24 December to provide warmth and light for the festive season and was kept burning for twelve days and nights – one for each month of the year.  Greenery, usually holly and ivy was also brought in as a symbol of good luck for the growth of new green in the following year.

A beast of some sort, usually a wild boar or deer, was hunted and slaughtered for festive feast and carried back by the men of the family, its blood staining the snow on the ground and the hunter’s coats a deep scarlet.  This was nature’s “gift” of plenty, a symbol of the life force believed to contain a share of divine energy or, more commonly, the spirit of the individual creature.  Tradition has it that the blood and snow is the red and white of Christmas, not the red and white costume of Santa Claus, which was actually an advertising campaign dreamed up by Coca Cola in 1931 and painted by the American artist Haddon Sundblom.

While driving home some weeks ago between Honington and Whatcote, a Merlin flew out of the hedge just ahead of me, and seemingly unaware that a vehicle was behind it, it continued to fly just a couple of feet above the road for some 200 years before making an erratic twist and turn and vanishing over the hedge.  As it was flying only about ten feet in front of me I was able to make a good identification.  I had seen what I thought was a Merlin some months ago near Blackwell, but was unable to make a positive identification.  It is a rare sighting in this area, being more a bird of western and northern Britain and usually seen quartering moorland.  The male is the smallest European raptor, the female being larger and can easily be confused with a Sparrowhawk.  Merlins are compact birds with a relatively short, square-cut tail and small broad-based pointed wings that are shorter than other falcons.  It is a bold and dashing little falcon with fast wing beats interrupted by brief glides.  It is more active, aggressive and determined in flight than larger species, soaring less and often flying low, straight and purposefully when hunting, but is also capable of amazing twists and turns when in pursuit.  The bird I saw was the male, little bigger than a mistle thrush, it had blue-grey upper parts with a black tail band.  The female and young of both sexes look brown from above and all are a reddish brown on the underparts.  During the Middle Ages falconry lore listed the Merlin as a lady’s bird and as such was much valued. 

During the early and mid 1900s Merlins were heavily persecuted by gamekeepers, and by 1970 there were probably only about 600 pairs left in Britain.  Fortunately the pressure has largely lifted, and estimates put the figure at about 1400 breeding pairs.

Apologies for missing last month’s nature notes, but thankfully Old Muckraker stood in very ably, and I wish him and all the readers a very happy and merry Yuletide.  But be careful of how much chocolate you eat:

The confection made of Cacao called Chocolate or Chocoletto, which may be had in divers places in London at reasonable rates, is of wonderful efficacy for the procreation of children: for it not only vehemently incited to Venus, but causeth Conception in women, and besides that it preserves health for it makes such as take it often to become fat and corpulent, fair and amiable.    William Coles Adam in Eden 1657.

 Grenville Moore

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Last modified: December 01, 2005