Turning Year: Menacing threat of plough tradition

Robins start to pair up this month.
Robins start to pair up this month.

After the mildest and wettest December on record this month seemed to be continuing the trend. But this is January, when cold spells are likely – St Hillary’s Day on January 13 is traditionally the coldest day of the year.

By now the seas around us have lost the stored warmth that normally takes the sting out of cold winds. And the sun, if we’re lucky enough to see it, is too weak to do much good: “As the days lengthen, so does the cold strengthen.”

Although good hard frosts kill off moulds and pests, and it’s best to have them now rather than later in the spring, folklore and the Met Office agree that proper wintry weather is more likely next month.

While male robins sing throughout the winter, they’re singing more sweetly now in the hope of attracting a mate. And yet when one approaches – female robins do the choosing – the male’s instinct is to threaten her. He’s trying to defend his territory, but she just won’t go away. Eventually he gives in, and they become a couple.

Blackbirds usually begin singing in February, but the recent unseasonable mildness encouraged some of them to try a few notes. Freezing mornings will put an end to that, as they focus on finding food.

The ideal breakfast for a blackbird is a juicy worm or two, but frozen soil sends them rummaging about under shrubs and in hedge bottoms in search of less nutritious spiders. Help them out with half an apple or some chopped-up grapes.

Our bird table offerings really matter at this point in the winter, because berries and other wild food tend to have been eaten by now.

If you have feathered visitors, why not take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch survey, on the weekend of January 30 and 31.

There’s an online survey form on the charity’s website – www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch – for those who want to take part.

Money with menaces

A couple of centuries ago every community depended on a successful harvest, a process that began this month with the ploughing of the fields.

But before work could start, the communal plough kept in the parish church was blessed on the first Sunday after January 6.

The next day, a team of young men known as Plough Jags, Stots, Bullocks, or Witches paraded the decorated plough around the parish. They sang, danced, or performed a short play in return for cash, which most people gave, because if they didn’t their front path would be ploughed up.

This caused many parishes to lose their Plough Monday customs, but at Goathland, near Whitby, the more acceptable aspect was revived in the early 20th century. Following the service of blessing last Sunday, the Goathland Plough Stots will perform the village’s traditional longsword dance this Saturday. Three teams, including juniors, can be seen around the village from 9.30am.

January 16 is the last of several days for wassailing apple trees. So if you have one, take a mug of cider or apple juice into the garden, share a drop with your tree, and sing the old song: “Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and we hope that thou wilt bear, hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel-bagfuls, and a little heap under the stair.”

The neighbours will love it, and you’ll be rewarded with a fine crop come the autumn.