Footprints and Giants at Westonbirt Arboretum

Come with us on a walk…

It’s 4th January – an opening chapter day in 2011 – and my husband and I are off to Westonbirt Arboretum. The Cotswold Hills today are a surprise. When we left home, the day was grey – not too cold, unremarkable. But, up here on the hills, the car is ascending to a hushed and crystallised world, the fields, hedge tops and walls hunched under a dusting of snow.

As we get out of the car at Westonbirt, we are met with a chill that catches our breath. I reach for my scarf and gloves, huddling inside my fleece and coat. Only then do I really take in the scene around me. What strikes me first is the quiet; the hunkered down feel to the day. The earth has its back turned to the chill, and the birds move, subdued and intent, nagging at it to give up some food.

Opposite the shop and Great Oak Hall, blackbirds and thrushes rush and hop, rush and hop, stabbing at the grass and flinging aside fallen leaves in search of invertebrates. Amongst them, we spot a flock of redwings, winter migrants from Scandinavia. Some are on the ground, others are gathered in the trees – and a pied wagtail is bobbing its way across the white-tangle turf.

The place feels almost deserted by humans this morning; only a scattering of people are about. Just the way we like it. All this space to ourselves! Our feet are already feeling like ice as we stop to bird watch, but the enchantment of the scene; the trees, the huddled ground under the sugar icing dusting of snow – the sheer quiet – is a lure that makes us forget the icy claw of the air. We enter the Old Arboretum and lose ourselves in a dome of green, flurried white. It is like stepping into one of those snow globes after someone has given it a shake, and all the glistening flakes are scattered thinly – the shapes of the scene quiet and resting after the mad whirl of white is over.

Picture of snow dusted tree bark

Picture of wood sculpture in the snow, Westonbirt Arboretum

Picture of a snow dusted scene at Westonbirt Arboretum

We are amongst the first humans to step on the ‘sugar icing’ – and we relish that sense of opening a freshly wrapped present as we start to explore. Many animals and birds have been busy here during the night and early hours of the morning. We find rabbit and deer tracks – and then suddenly, there are these perfect badger prints:

Picture of badger paw prints in the snow

Badger (Meles meles) Paw Prints in the Snow

Picture of single badger paw print

Later on, we walk round to one of the main setts, and find the snow around it marked by countless (very muddy!) badger paw prints of various sizes. Along one of their trails from the sett, there is a long, long churned up mark where the badgers have been busy dragging bedding from a leaf-filled ditch opposite. I imagine the brocks with those piles of dead leaves and vegetation tucked under their chins, waddling backwards as they aim their ample backsides at the mounds and entrances of their sett.

This winter must have been very hard on the badgers. The ground has been like iron for so long – impossible for them to dig or to find sustenance in that frozen confection of their staple diet of worms and other invertebrates.

Over the past year, we’ve been certain that we have badgers visiting our suburban garden. We’ve seen the signs – the patches of earth dug up, a latrine full of badger poo, a vague Brock paw mark in the snow one morning…

Also, our next-door-neighbours told us a while back that briefly, one night in the summer, a badger got stuck under their gate whilst trying to squeeze into their back garden. Brock made so much noise, our neighbours got out of bed to investigate, opening their door in time to see the badger break free, and head straight towards their duck house to feast on Jemima & Co’s feed.

Our neighbours opposite have long had badgerly visits to their garden from the woods behind – and now, excitingly, our local brocks seem to have added our side of the road to their regular foraging routes. We’re not lawn proud, so we welcome the scrapes and mini craters appearing now and then amongst the tussocks and under our hedge. It’s a dream come true to play host to the badgers. Now, it is our ambition to glimpse them one bleary-eyed night, if we can manage the long, window-side vigil in the small hours.

Back in Westonbirt, the chilly magic of the day continues with the tiny chink and chime of flocks of tits and goldcrests in the trees – and down on the ground.

We watch, enchanted, as a goldcrest, tiniest of birds, feeds at the foot of a giant sequoia, just feet away – and others flit through the trees in a constant, vital search for food amongst the pine needles. A couple of coal tits are busy amongst the fallen leaves, concentrating their efforts on the richer pickings of ground left snowless beneath the shelter of spreading conifer branches.

As an experiment (my husband’s a scientist – bear with him…) we stand right up close to the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), stepping up onto the brown mound of springy needles gathered at its feet and leaning against its towering trunk. While my husband applies his curiosity and logic to the effect of the warm air trapped in the big old tree’s branches, I indulge in a bit of tree hugging. Giant sequoia bark is so spongy and warm, and leaning against it, it is easy to imagine the refuge and comfort the birds could find roosting in its embrace. Standing there, the rise in temperature within the sequoia’s own micro-climate seeps up into my frozen feet, and the placid hum of the life of that old Hagrid-tree seems to fold around us.

There’s a lovely ‘feel’ to giant sequoias – those awe-inspiring trees named in honour of Chief Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee writing system. They emanate grandeur, but also a sense of welcome and friendly ease. They are the sort of tree you want to lean your back against, letting your mind wander through the forest – head tilted back, looking up, up, up that soaring trunk, feeling very small and connected to earth and sky. It’s a pipedream of mine to visit the sequoia groves in the Giant Sequoia National Monument one day… This Hagrid tree is just a baby in comparison to those ancient leviathans, fully fledged in their native soil of California.

Back in Gloucestershire however, we must leave behind our sequoia central heating system, and rejoin the snowy path. We meet a robin, sitting quietly puffed up in a sheltered conifer. Quietly, my husband manages to get this photo of it – but the focus is blurry; the robin moves on before he can snap a better one:

Picture of a robin

Breaking away from the path onto the grassy rides of the Old Arboretum, we come across a large flock of coal tits – more of them than I’ve ever seen gathered together – foraging on the ground amongst the leaf litter. In true coal tit style, once they have found food, they hop-fly with it to a suitable perch to get on with the business of eating. As we stand there, it is like watching a series of tiny jack-in-the-boxes – or paper-light puppets on strings – as they yo-yo in brief alternating dances, their flight paths criss-crossing down-up, up-down. Occasionally, one or two break away and cross the ride, landing in the bush right beside us – and then flit back to rejoin the others, creating patterns on the cold-heavy, winter-white air.

Despite the bitter chill, we don’t want to tear ourselves away from this mesmerising coal tit dance of survival…but time is wearing on. All around us, the day is warming (very slightly!) towards mid-day. Our ears are now filled with the sound of the ever-increasing drip, drip, drip of melting snow. Everywhere we look droplets of water hang, bulging with bright light, and fall musically from the branches. We look at our watches. We have to be back in time for the kids’ return from school fairly soon – and now our lunch-time is approaching.

After a very welcome hot meal in Westonbirt’s Maples Café, accompanied by the usual pied wagtail working the opportunities for leftover food-finds on the decking outside – and also by a view of a buzzard, wing-hunched low over the valley, being mobbed by crows – we slide down the steep hill of the Arboretum’s downs, and then up again into Silk Wood.

The day’s theme for this side of the arboretum seems to be blackbirds and nuthatches. The nuthatches are gathered in various conifers, and the tree tops bluster with the urgency of their piercing calls. We are able to watch several as they edge head first down the trunks, prise food from the crevices and break open nuts with resounding taps against the bark. They are such exquisite little birds. I love their muted mix of soft-sky blue grey and salmon-chestnut blush. They are one of the many beauty-treats of any walk in these woods.

The blackbirds are all vitally busy with turning over and tossing leaves in search for food – but we notice that most seem to be in male and female pairs – like the ones in our garden. At one point, we hear a male give its alarm call – but with a slight difference. Instead of the usual burst of alarm followed by a wing flapping quick-exit, this develops into a constant chink, chink, chinking – and we look up to see him perched on a branch, posing with tail cocked in territorial bravado…just a branch away from a rather bashfully admiring female.

Between the urgent need to feed, some early spring behaviour is the buzz of the day for many of the birds filling the woods here.

That zingy feeling on the air, created by birdsong – and by a quickening in the wood, already humming with the promise of awakening – turns my thoughts to days ahead…when, like wishes unfolding from this bronze sculpture:

Picture of Westonbirt Wishes Bronze by sculptor, John Newling

Picture of plaque for Westonbirt Wishes Bronze by John Newling

… the Arboretum will soon, again, look like this:

Picture of Westonbirt Arboretum carpeted with wood anemones

Picture of wood anemones at Westonbirt Arboretum

Picture of bluebells at Westonbirt ArboretumPicture of Early Purple Orchids and Cowslips at Westonbirt Arboretum

Picture of peacock butterfly on blossom, Westonbirt Arboretum

POSTSCRIPT RE. GOVERNMENT SELL OFF OF PUBLICLY OWNED FORESTS IN ENGLAND:

The Government wishes to sell our Public Forest Estate, of which Westonbirt, the National Arboretum is a part. You can keep informed on all the issues and developments – and get involved with the campaigns against the Government’s plans to transfer all of England’s publicly owned woodlands out of state ownership at Save Our Woods and Save Our Forests.

Yesterday (2nd February) MPs met to debate and vote on the Labour motion against the forest sell off… Everything about the sell off proposals and the so-called ‘consultation’ (a document which already assumes that the public forests will be privatised, and consists of questions on how it should be done) makes my heart sink like a stone… but also fires it up to do something in response. I wrote to my MP to express all my concerns and my dismay. Today, I see he voted with the Government.  The motion was defeated by 310 to 260.

But, it’s good to see that there were three Tory rebels, four Lib Dem rebels and some abstentions… MPs have been deluged with emails and letters on this issue. The public outcry made this debate happen.

At the time of writing, the petition against the forest sales has gathered over 430,000 signatures. If you haven’t already done so, you can add your voice to the petition by signing it at the 38 Degrees Website.

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