A winter that feels like spring

We hear the latest from Chris Taylor down at Highbullen Hotel in North Devon With the start of the New Year, it’s time to recap over the past couple of months down in Devon.

One of the triggers that stimulate spawning is cold weather, and by the beginning of November we had still not had any frosts. So when another keen fisherman and I walked upstream to spot Salmon Redds on the first day that the water was clear enough, we were unsure of the number that we would count. Last year, we counted some 27 Redds over this stretch at the end of November, so were eager to find as many as possible. We stopped at all the sites Redds were seen last year and it took an hour or so of walking through the stunning pastoral landscape to cover all the river, noting the maintenance required over the coming winter as we went.

The list of works was growing fast, but unfortunately the number of Redds was not. By the time we had finished we had two very small Redds and one large one, but I put this down to just being too early. I haven’t been again, not because of lack of interest but the river has been too coloured and high to see anything, but will be keen to reassess once the conditions are better.

At present there are vast flocks of redwings, fieldfares and pigeons to be seen in the skies around Highbullen Hotel. It is common at this time of year to see to members of the thrush family but not so the pigeons. This has presented somewhat of a mystery as I don’t know what they are feeding on, and although sustained cold weather in the north can also force flocks south, it has not been cold for a prolonged enough time to force this.

Fieldfares and a Black Bird

The Golf Course staff have reported that there was frog spawn in some of our ponds as early as the beginning of December, a month earlier than normal and if we don’t get cold snap, we’ll have tadpoles! However, the warmth has not put off those that migrate south for the winter, as I have seen many snipe recently and they seem to love the water logging tractor wheel marks left from the late maize silage harvest.

 

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With the climate talks in Paris a hot topic, signs of our warming planet have been brought to everyone’s attention. The Little Egret has moved its range northwards, and are frequently seen on our rivers throughout the year, and are now breeding in Britain. Is their spread north due to the milder winters? It was some 30 or more years ago I heard that we would see a change in weather patterns due to global warming, so why it’s taken so long for mass recognition, I am not so sure. Species like the egret were only occasional visitors to Devon 30 years ago, and they are not the only ones. Recorded catches of Bass at sea have moved from only southern England to the western Isles of Scotland in just a few decades. In addition, the Hawthorn is bursting bud, the Blackthorn is even further forward and to make it really feel spring like, there are primroses everywhere, it feels like the first week of March. I also understand that there are daffodils in many parts of Britain, but as yet we have none out around the Hotel.

On the 29th of December, the weather was perfect. Wall to wall sunshine and Exmoor beckoned me and my Labrador, Tipper, for a good dose of exercise and fresh air. I have to say there was no evidence of the warm winter up there, at over 1200 feet, a brisk breeze meant a speedy pace was required to keep warm. I hadn’t gone a half a mile before I saw very fresh slots (deer foot prints) crossing my path. Glancing towards the direction of travel I saw a strange shape at the top of the comb some 100 metres away. The binoculars revealed someone crouching low in the rushes with camera poised. I had a good idea he was onto the deer. Looking almost straight into the sun I did get a view of some 7 stag crossing the skyline, envious of the photographer must have some cracking photos!

Prior to this, I had noticed another group of deer some 2 miles away and set myself the challenge of stalking them, the wind was right and there was plenty of daylight left. To get close I would have to circumnavigate them. A stunning walk off the beaten track and I had the impression no one else had taken this route for many a moon. Walking with stream and marsh on one side and thick beech hedge on the other at the base of this isolated comb, I was bound to have some form of wildlife experience. I spooked a woodcock from the hedge and several pigeons. I scoured the combe sides for anything and somehow missed the first hind and her yearling. They must have heard me first, before her warning bark, she stood and watched us for a minute or two and then disappeared. As the stream was joined by many other smaller ones, it was getting smaller and rising up the combe steeply. I couldn’t have been far from that group now, as I rounded what may have been the last few hundred metres, I alerted another stag to my presence. He stood up from his resting spot, basking in the sun, where he was perfectly camouflaged, and sussed us out before striding off at an extended trot. At this point I knew I had failed in my objective of getting close to the herd without disturbing them, so I retraced my steps home and can’t wait to get out there again.

Usually at this time of year I would hope to see a hen harrier and flock of golden plover but not so this outing, so it means I must return. Not that I’m disappointed about that at all!

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