Nature 2006 December

Ruddoc, Muntjac and Beefsteak; the Christmas Season with all the Trimmings

Once again new records have been set with the warmer than normal Autumn overall and above average rainfall. Rainfall in October reached over four inches and 2006 is turning out to be wetter than last year. Predictions suggest above average temperatures for December and January with frequent spells of heavy rainfall.

By the end of this month no doubt every house in the villages, in fact almost every house in the country, will have at least one Christmas card which features a Robin, more likely perched on a sprig of holly, a snow-sprinkled wall, a spade or maybe atop a snowman.

So how did the Robin Redbreast end up as a symbol on Christmas cards? Like most customs this one has an ancient origin but in this case more recent influences have also played their part. There are several interweaving strands which conspired to ensure the Robin has persisted as an icon of Christmas. Firstly, the name ‘Robin’ is a 16th century romantic throw-back to the legends of Robin Hood or Robin Goodfellow, alluded too by Shakespeare’s in his writings and by the traditional English poem ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’. The sight or sound of the Robin was believed to bring good fortune, but to kill a Robin or steal its eggs would bring debt or bad luck. The bird was better known as a Ruddock or Redbreast and also through storytelling a close association with Christ’s crucifixion. In medieval England it was believed the Ruddoc’s (OE for the Robin) breast became more prominent around Easter symbolising the blood of Christ’s which had dropped onto a bird’s breast as he alighted on his shoulder.

In 1843 the first picture greeting card was designed by John Horsely on the suggestion of his friend Henry Cole to be used when calling on friends at Christmas. When Victoria and Albert made this fashionable the Robin became a ready-made symbol to put on cards. Its also interesting to note that the ‘penny post’ was also introduced in 1842 and the first postmen wore red jackets and quickly became known as ‘Robins’.

Despite its gradual demise as a religious symbol during the early 20th century the probable reason for the Robin’s subsequent resurgence on cards started during the Second World War and the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, as the bird ‘migrated’ from its woodland habitat to become the pre-eminent bird of English allotments and gardens. Instead of following pigs in the woods it followed the gardener as he or she dug the allotment garden. Another bird that has successfully made the move from arable land is the Song Thrush, the Dunnock has arrived from mountain woodland, the Pied Wagtail from water’s edge to roadside verge and Swifts and Martins from cliffs to house walls and roofs.

This time of year leafless Chiltern Beechwoods provide a reassuring skyline as you travel back home as the light is failing. With the trees defoliated wildlife concealed at other times becomes more conspicuous. The Muntjac’s echoing bark is all the more resonant this time of year. With the lack of undergrowth they must venture out both morning and late afternoon. Despite their darker coats at this time of year and the gloom that often descends they can be usually spotted as they follow regular pathways along the wooded edges of fields.

Higher up in the trees, and visible against the grey sky, the tangle of twigs and dead leaves called drays which squirrels have constructed to shelter them against the worst of the weather. They remain active for as long as possible each day, with occasional forays to unearth hazel nuts and acorns from the woodland floor. In January with pairing in full swing the normal peace is shattered by a cacophony of chattering as they traverse from bough to bough.

Also more visible than normal and equally dependant on trees but in contrast silent are the many bracket fungi depositing their spores in huge quantities this month. Exhibiting a kaleidoscope of pastel colours they make an excellent still-life project to practice on with that new camera. Nine-tenths of the fungi is hidden under the bark of the tree, gradually sucking the life from living trees. The slowest growing members of all the fungi family, some can live for up to twenty years, their age recorded in the concentric rings of growth. Unmistakable and common around here is the Beefsteak Fungus with the colour or raw steak although its shaped more like a liver or tongue. Looks better than it tastes sadly. Commonly found low down on Oak and Chestnut and the stain it makes in the wood is valued in furniture-making.

A perennial feature of the Chiltern woodland edges in January is the emergence of snowdrops. All the books show photographs of the flower buds breaking through a carpet of snow, which seems more and more unlikely these days. On the now more common warmer days over-wintering bees will emerge to recharge their batteries with the pungent nectar these flowers produce. Above, the first hazels catkins will burst open the male flowers casting clouds of pollen to seek out carmine–coloured stigmas on female flowers. Night-time screams are the desperate calls of vixens who in just tree weeks over winter need to find a fox to mate with. The smaller the bird the more active it has to be to survive, which is why you will often hear Wrens strident staccato calls from a nearby hedge. Smaller still, the Goldcrest distinguished by its bright yellow pencil line crest must feed at length each day and will ignore humans as it darts from branch to branch low down in shrubs and hedges.

With Christmas approaching a couple of suggestions with a difference. How about a sustainable present? Adopt an animal and help a conservation project see . Or how about a subscription to the RSPB, BBOWT or Buglife.

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