Signs of spring although winter isn’t finished yet

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THE year may not yet feel like spring, and winter hasn’t finished with us yet, not by a long way, but there are definite signs of new life starting all around us.

Some catkins struggled out before the turn of the year, but now they are everywhere; snowdrops were late, I thought, but there are plenty to be seen, thin dark leaves cutting through the mud while the lowered heads of the blooms shiver in the wind.

Some birds are nesting already albeit unsuccessfully: the collared doves raised a pair to fledging in the tall hawthorn, but then both died.

They will make good the loss, I have no doubt, for they breed like rats. One of the bantams has gone broody too, but the egg she is sitting on is china.

When she is out on one of her brief forays to eat and drink, one of us removes each real egg. We keep no cockerel, so the eggs won’t hatch and in any case we do not want any more bantams.

The two we have are decorative and talkative, but not much use as layers, though they are doing their bit in raking over the vegetable garden for insect eggs and pupae, and have thoughtfully harvested the last of the sprouts for us as well.

The rabbits are in breeding fettle; they never really stop here in the south country, but of course the survival rate of the young is dubious in the hard weather, rather like the collared doves.

We have found a handful of dead or dying baby rabbits, dug out by badgers or foxes, and no doubt many a stoat will have feasted underground on rabbit kittens.

There are still rabbits with myxomatosis about, too, though the ones we have found have been fat enough, not like the scrawny specimens we were seeing before Christmas.

If no predator finds them, and they escape secondary infections such as pneumonia, they might survive and have immunity to that particular strain of the disease, which is why we still have rabbits about despite the annual plague.

It is a time of year for finding unwary foxes, too, maybe tired out and careless from their romantic forays, or possibly unused to the country way of life.

With others, earths are being pulled out afresh and tidied up for new life.

We take a walk around to see what is happening where, so that we can keep an eye on things.

All this might be quoted as examples of global warming or some other such fancy disaster, but it has been happening for as long as I can remember.

If the winter is mild and wet, it kills off as many early-born young as if it were bitter and hard, yet still the early-breeding species such as ducks and doves, woodpigeons and rabbits, will have young, and no doubt the more secretive countryside creatures as well.

I saw the first toad dead in the lane, so amphibians are on the move, and I hope plenty manage to get to their spawning grounds, for they are under enough pressure nowadays from shrinking habitat.

Who knows what goes on in a mole-tunnel, or where the weasel nests?

And I shall have to watch my ferrets closely for signs of them coming into breeding fettle, for they do not always work to their best ability at such times.

Lately when ferreting we have been finding doe rabbits in kindle, and quantities of old buck rabbits living apart from them, perhaps to escape the nagging.

Whatever the reason, we are catching several bucks to each doe, and they are only fit for dog and ferret food, so tough are they.

So the sky is grey, and mornings stay dark, wind rattles anything that needs mending before it gets worse, and it is altogether a trying time of year, but the wildlife at least is telling us that change is on the way, which is good news at the raw end of winter.