Signs and Portents

Tuesday 26th January 2016

Snowdrops in the snowSnowdrop by Iris Wijngaarden

Spring often feels like a good time for looking forward and contemplating what the year ahead may hold. Even if it doesn’t much feel like spring at the moment, the beginning of February has long been a time of foretelling and forecasting.

You may have heard of the American tradition of Groundhog Day. On February 2nd each year, the state of the weather when the groundhog emerges from its burrow is used to predict the coming of spring. If it’s cloudy, it is believed that Spring will come early, but if it is bright then the groundhog will see his shadow and turn back into his burrow. This means there are still six more weeks of winter weather to come!

This is echoed in many old British sayings around Candlemas, celebrations which take place around 2nd February (like Easter, it is a moveable feast). Although the wording may be different depending upon location in the UK, they all run along the same lines; ‘If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter will have another bite. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and will not come again'.

These weather forecasts are believed to have their roots in much older practices. Certain dates have been important to mankind since at least Neolithic times (around 5000 years ago). One of them is Imbolc, the 1st of February, because it marks the point in the year when the first signs of spring appear, promising that the hold of winter will be broken and the wheel of the seasons will continue to turn.

Traditionally, Imbolc is a time of weather divination for the year ahead. For example, it was believed that this is the time of year when a Gaelic goddess known as Queen of Winter would go out and gather firewood. If she wished the winter to last a long time, then she would ensure the day was bright and sunny so that she could collect a large amount. On the other hand if the weather is awful, it means she has fallen asleep, and cannot then gather wood, so she will keep the winter short.

An old Gaelic poem has it that “As far as the wind shall enter the door, On the Feast Day of Bride (1st February), The snow shall enter the door, On the Feast Day of Patrick (17th March). So according to prophecy, if it’s sunny, warm and windy on the first of February, we’re in for a few more weeks of winter!

You don't have to be a pagan to get a close association with the natural world, but why not get closer to nature and see what signs of spring you can spot? You can see the beginnings of new growth in the form of snowdrops and leaf bud - although with the mild winter we’ve just had you may have been seeing these things since last year!

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is one of the first trees to bloom. Look for the frothy white flowers on the spiny branches that give this native plum its name, and make a mental note of where you see them – this is the place to come back to in late autumn to gather sloes for flavouring gin! Snowdrops usually start to carpet woodlands in February; why not take a wander through Moss Valley Woodlands? You might even hear woodpeckers starting their courtship!

Despite the risk of further cold weather to come, some bird species including Blue tits and Great tits start to nest now. You can help them by putting up a nestbox and leaving nesting materials out for them. Hair, scraps of wool cut into short lengths, and pieces of plant material will all be welcome and encourage them into your garden. Leaving food and water out for them in the coldest weather can make a real difference to their survival. If you have the space, now is a good time to plant berry bearing plants like hawthorn, holly or rowan to provide food and shelter for birds for years to come.

If you don’t have a garden, or prefer getting out into the brisk weather to watching birds from the comfort of your armchair, then a trip to Blackburn Meadows offers a great opportunity to see winter wildfowl. There have been over 140 species spotted there, from our native swans, coots and kingfishers, to visitors including wigeon and teal. Centenary Riverside is another great place to see wildfowl. Birds will be really starting to get into the dawn and dusk choruses, and these wetland sites are prime places to hear them give full voice.

We’ve lots of events throughout February, from volunteering at Crabtree Ponds to our Wild at Heart photography course. Visit www.wildsheffield.com/whats-on for more details or call us on 0114 263 4335.