We are passed the winter solstice, and slowly the days are getting longer. January can seem an especially long and cold month. However, usually early snowdrops about midway through the month, and they act as a reminder of warmer weather and brighter colours to come. They can be found on the path from Whitwell to St. Paul’s Walden church, along the Bury drive.

This is the time bird feeders will be at their busiest and it is worthwhile filling them regularly and cleaning them too, with warm soapy water and a brush to remove any clogged food. If you haven’t already done so put up nest boxes for birds preferably facing north or east to avoid the westerly rains and southerly sun.

The RSPB‘s big garden birdwatch takes place at the end of the month, from the 29th – 31st of January (visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/ for more information).

There are few insects out and about but occasionally you may see a winter moth which flies from October to January and can often be seen around porch lights or in car headlights when driving through the surrounding countryside.  The males and females look very different since the females only have short stubby wings and cannot fly.  To attract a mate, the female will crawl up a tree trunk and give off pheromones.  Great tits and blue tits feed their young on Winter Moth caterpillars and will time their breeding to coincide with the moth’s lifecycle.

When out walking along our footpaths, in churchyards (especially old gravestones), woodlands and gardens look around and see the bright greens and greys of mosses and lichens. What’s the difference between a moss and lichen?  Basically one is a plant and one is not.

Mosses will have leaves and very small stems, although they have no roots.  Having no roots makes the mosses dry out easily which is why in the wet, damp weather they look so bright and in summer they look brown and dead.

Lichens are one entity – an algae and fungi mix and can survive more harsh conditions whether drought, cold or wet.  They have historically been used in dyes and antibiotics. Lichen look amazing when magnified through an eye lens or magnifying glass and take on a kind of coral like appearance.  They can look like jam tarts or fish bones.

Lichens act as bioindicators – and their presence can help identify whether nitrogen-based air pollutants are increasing or decreasing.  If you are interested in knowing more about lichen and identifying them, a citizen science project called Opal explore nature has produced some very useful guides to identify them. Look at branches of different ages to identify whether there are nitrogen sensitive lichens, or nitrogen tolerant lichens (which are more prevalent where pollution is high). See https://www.imperial.ac.uk/opal/surveys/airsurvey/. An alternative is to use an App, such as Seek, which can help with identification.

A survey of the garden at Rustling End Cottage carried out by Andrew Harris the Herts Lichen recorder found 66 different species of lichen, 17 of them on the oak wooden front gate and 18 species on a young oak tree.


Julie Wise and Frances Harris