Migration and the Wild Hunt

Bewick's swans
Bewick's swans

by Heather Elvidge

In this time between seasons, some leaves have yet to fall. But in the far north winter comes much earlier. Most of Russia is already covered with snow; so is northern and eastern Scandinavia.

The short Arctic summer finds Bewick’s swans and brent geese on the Siberian tundra. Whooper swans are in Iceland, pink-footed geese in Iceland and Greenland. But before the land becomes snowbound these birds set off for warmer climes, covering thousands of miles to reach our lakes, estuaries and saltmarshes.

They fly in flocks, straggly lines, or v-formations, keeping in touch by 
calling loudly to each 
other. 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 migrating birds were responsible for the myth of the Wild Hunt, a pack of phantom hounds heard passing overhead at night.

As this omen of doom can appear anywhere, it has many local names – in northern England it’s called 
Gabble Ratchets or Gabriel Hounds.

The Norsemen believed that the hounds belonged to Odin; in later centuries they were said to be fire-breathing demons pursuing the souls of sinners. The hounds inspired such fear that even those who knew they were birds couldn’t help but shudder at the baying and yapping. The Wild Hunt was last seen during the First World War – unless you know otherwise...

Winter watch

After such a run of mild weather, we’re hardly prepared for winter’s chill. So when will it begin?

Victorian meteorologist Alexander Buchan identified a “Cold Period” from November 6 to 13. But today’s weather prophets are looking at the extent of the snow cover in Russia and northern Scandinavia. This huge mass of chilled air can affect European weather systems, giving us a colder winter. But that’s not inevitable, and it’s too soon for meteorologists to draw any conclusions.

So it’s back to the pinecone-and-seaweed. October was incredibly mild, which according to folklore means a wintry February. The month was also windy, which suggests that January will be drier than usual. And since October didn’t live up to its reputation for mistiness, a lot of snow seems unlikely this winter.

November has some forecasting dates, beginning with St Martin’s Day on the 11th. Usually, the saint ushers in a few fine days. But Martinmas itself is supposed to give us a taste of winter, so let’s hope there are no easterly or northwesterly winds. Also, “If leaves fall not by Martinmas Day, a cruel winter is on the way.” Then there’s November 23, St Clement’s Day, which is supposed to confirm the general trend for winter, while St Catherine on the 25th offers a further clue to February.

Many years have passed since we last had a big freeze in November. But if it should occur, the old lore has it covered: “When ice in November will bear a duck, the rest of the winter is slush and muck.”

And finally, here’s one for those who grow onions. Are they sporting thicker skins this year? If so, that’s a sign of a hard winter.