Column: Fear of the Wild Hunt

A redwing among cotoneaster berries.
A redwing among cotoneaster berries.

A sign of the changing season is the arrival of the winter thrushes, redwings and fieldfares, as they flock across the North Sea to escape the northern winter.

Redwings are here already. These shy birds resemble our song thrush, with a creamy stripe above the eyes and red patches under each wing. Their “tseep, tseep,” call is heard as the flock flies overhead at night, or forages in a bush.

The other winter thrush is larger and bolder. Fieldfares stand tall, showing off their grey head, chestnut back, grey rump and orange-tinted breast spotted with black. Even their call is loud: a distinctive “chack, chack”.

Fieldfares feed in ploughed fields and visit hawthorns to feast on the berries, which are plentiful this year. They’re not afraid to come into our gardens — apples cut in half are a big temptation on a freezing day.

Unseasonably cold weather in Russia and eastern Europe has hastened the migration of many birds. The short Arctic summer finds Bewick’s swans and Brent geese on the Siberian tundra; hooper swans in Iceland; pink-footed geese in Iceland and Greenland. The birds set off before the land becomes snowbound, covering thousands of miles to reach our lakes, estuaries and salt marshes. Their straggly lines and V-formations are a familiar sight after dawn or before dusk.

As they fly, the birds keep in touch with loud calls. Bewick’s swans honk and yelp. Brent geese babble. Whooper swans are named for their wild bugling. Pink-footed geese gabble and yelp like unruly dogs.

These birds were responsible for the myth of the Wild Hunt, a pack of phantom hounds heard passing overhead at night. In northern England this omen of doom is called Gabble Ratchets or Gabriel Hounds.

The hounds were said to be fire-breathing demons pursuing the souls of sinners. The Wild Hunt was so feared that even those who knew it was only birds couldn’t help but shudder at the baying and yapping.

Going nutting

October is the month for nuts and it’s not only squirrels that like them. People used to gather nuts too, supplementing their diet with beechnuts, hazelnuts and sweet chestnuts.

Hazelnuts were the most prized. They were stored in their shells to be eaten during the winter, or sold for use by cloth dyers. They were also dried, ground and mixed with flour to make it go further. Hazel nut gathering was done by groups of villagers, often women, and their lively expeditions inspired a number of traditional songs about the perils of nutting. Today they’d be lucky to find any at all — grey squirrels take hazelnuts before they have a chance to ripen.

Hazelnuts came in handy for weather forecasting. Thick shells meant a hard winter; if they were thin the winter would be mild. A heavy crop of hawthorn berries, or acorns, was also said to signify hard months ahead. The earlier they ripened, the sooner the chill would begin.

Recently there’s been some scaremongering about the coming winter. Even the early arrival of Bewick’s swans has been hailed as the sign of a deep freeze. But, while folklore signs are hinting that it will be colder than last year, there’s nothing to suggest that we need to fly south with the birds.