Monday, 31 January 2011

If You Go Down To The Woods Today…

With the prospect of an imminently approaching band of inclement weather, we thought to try and make the best of the quietness of last week while we could. With outside temperatures barely rising above freezing point, it was going to be a walk that was laden with binoculars and camera, woolly hat and gloves, as well as the obligatory several layers to ward off the cold. We were headed for a small hazel wood that flanks the North-West coast of Mull and, as we set out, we took time to marvel at the beauty of the sky - a mixture of ragged Cumulus fractus and ‘fair weather’ Cumulus humilis clouds, with the wisps of icy Cirrus uncinus at the highest altitudes, whose ‘Mare’s Tails’ perhaps foretold of the worsening weather that was forecast.

Clouds are the ephemeral poetry of Mother Nature, constantly forming, changing and dissipating in front of our eyes and we couldn’t help but wonder as to what skies welcomed the arrival of the first hunter/gatherer/fisher people to the Isle of Mull after the retreat of the last Ice Age (ca. 8,000 years ago). One of the pioneering trees that colonised Mull at this time would have been the Hazel and small remnant woodlands of this most useful small tree cling on in patches throughout the island today.

The New Year sees the previously coppiced stools stir in an effort to shake off Winter’s enforced dormancy. Already buds were beginning to show signs of bursting with fresh life and the lamb’s tail catkins of male flowers were revealing the promise of next month, when they will open up and hang in profusion. The Hazel is an optimistic Spring marker on the Isle of Mull, its glorious tassles a reassurance that the flowers of Primrose, Lesser Celandine and Wood Sorrel won’t be far behind. It remains to be seen what effect yet another cold, hard Winter will have on the arrival dates of our Spring flowers this time round.

Much of the island may have been covered in pioneer trees, like Birch and Hazel, during Mesolithic times and the earliest of immigrants to Mull would have made use of this abundant resource, for shelter, tools and food. However, it was when subsequent generations of these nomadic people decided to settle on the island during Neolithic times (ca. 5,000 years ago) that the woodlands were cleared to make way for farming communities. These ‘clearances’ enabled a template to be forged for a prehistoric way of life that has been developed down through the ages, yet is still practiced today, albeit in a more modern fashion!

Today, our Hazel woodlands remain as eyes to Mull’s past, while providing food and shelter for the island’s wonderful wildlife. With few Wood Pigeons and no squirrels residing on Mull, it is left to the mice and Pheasants to gorge themselves on Autumn’s crop of Hazel nuts and for locally bred and migrant Woodcock to hide themselves away in the leaf litter. Crepuscular by nature, these cryptic woodland waders have been having a hard time of it lately, as they try to find earthworms in the frozen ground. A recent fresh snowfall brought one bird along a well-walked path on North Mull in its search for food, where it met up with another of the island’s hungry residents… Bigfoot!

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