open country

I learned on a documentary called The Year Britain Froze that we are not yet free of sub-zero temperatures – last year 11 people died from falling through the ice on frozen rivers and lochs, a young woman gave birth to her baby boy in the back of her father’s car because they were stuck in a traffic jam when snow fell hard without warning.

Countless road accidents resulted in fatalities and injuries, jack-knifed lorries created miles of queues on motorways but the weather is only partly to blame – much of the fault must lie with people’s inability to change their driving habits in dangerous conditions.

The reason for our two winters of severe weather in a row is the course of the jetstream. The band of air that blows around the Earth and distributes hot and cold air more evenly started to bend up and over Greenland’s south tip. It then curled southwards, missing the UK, leaving us vulnerable to Siberian winds from the north-east.

So, instead of us getting warm air from the Atlantic, the distorted jet stream pulled freezing air down on us from the arctic regions. Combined with the clear skies, this maintained some of the lowest temperatures since records began 120 years ago.

However, in the last couple of weeks I have enjoyed the clear, cool winter skies whose light would rejoice with the sound of small birds, feeding with last year’s brood and singing for this year’s mate.

One afternoon I walked up the eastern side of the pleasant open track of Soonhope Glen in Peebles until I reached the boundary with the forestry commission’s land. Jayjay jumps the gate – as he raises his front paws he pushes up with his hind legs. The movement is flawless, fluid, he makes no sound. He stops to watch me, to make sure I am going in the same direction.

What little warmth there was from the sun is now blotted by the rows of gloomy conifers. Further up, the track is wider and more light gets in; further up still there is an open area with deciduous trees.

Then the strange lonely sight of Shieldgreen Centre greets you. Today, it is the whitest thing I have ever seen, the shade heightened by the sun’s glow. Around the angular shape, with its green shutters, the mellow ambers of sleeping grasses, flowers and trees shimmers.

I look along the right-of-way that heads back down to Venlaw woods – it is an old narrow track leaving the forestry road at an acute angle. To my right there is a footbridge that SBC path wardens Matt and Colin built. Although I do not need to go over the little wooden bridge, I feel compelled to – it too is dashed by afternoon sun.

I linger there. Jayjay drinks in the stream encrusted with aquatic jewels. When I leave, I walk more quickly, but stop at some alders. A number of small birds are feeding intently. They are silent: it is only their movement that stops me in my tracks.

These tiny creatures look shorter than a chaffinch, with shorter tails and plump bellies. At first glance I am sure they are goldcrests but without binoculars I cannot be sure. It is their presence on alder trees that will decide the species as they nimbly feed on the delicate branches of the tree.

Even in the shade of the canopy, I cannot account for the dark tone of their fore-crown. I can see that the bird is dark streaked in some places. Concentration is rewarded because I can recall much of the light and shade of the bird when I read the words “often on alders in winter”.

What I enjoyed that sunny afternoon was redpolls feeding on a bare alder, with just its cones hanging.

No-one but me had the pleasure of standing there watching them feed. I was like a child looking at the fairylights when they are switched on for the first time that year.