new year blue skies

The bitterly cold December has given way to a regular January, at least here. We had a bracing walk yesterday morning, frost underfoot when we set off, but melted by the time we returned.

The sky was that wonderful shade of January blue, and very welcome after days of relentless, gloomy grey. Our walk took us through this beech hangar of mature trees at one of the high points of the Wiltshire Downs, magnificent in their bareness. Beeches do have very fine bones.

I spent a little time in the garden in the afternoon beginning the spring tidy up-pruning overgrown roses and clematis and thinking about whether to have a major refurbishment of the borders. I am determined to continue the work I stared last year of providing nectar rich varieties of flowers for the insects to feed on, especially as I have high hopes the occupants of the bee hotels will have survived the bitter weather. I just need a little less breeze and at few more degrees, and the digging fork will be coming out of its winter storage.

unfinished business

We are in a quiet break between two Arctic air streams-most unusual for this early in a Wiltshire winter. On Sunday we took a walk in thawing woods and were intrigued by the number of trees seemingly caught by the fierce approach of winter, before autumn had packed its bags and left. Many of the oaks are left carrying the desiccated brown remnants of their summer canopies, a phenomenon I am familiar with in beeches, but have seldom observed so widely on the oaks hereabouts. I have not been able to find reference to why this has happened this year in particular but seems not to be exclusive to Wiltshire. Travelling up and down the M5 to Devon recently has shown many other trees in the same state across Somerset and Devon,  suggesting the rapid fall in temperature and prolonged cold spell are important factors. Has anyone else noticed this?

Further on our walk I was captivated by the distant sight of poplars. I had read a very interesting post about Black poplars (Populus nigra ssp. betulifolia) here and had my eyes open for them. The ones in this picture are almost certainly Lombardy poplars, of tall and fastigiate habit. They are also  Populus  nigra, but ssp. Italica, introduced into the Uk in the 1750s. The native Black poplar is one of Britain’s rarest trees and as they hybridise freely, pure specimens are hard to find and require DNA fingerprinting 1. to identify with certainty. I read that North Wiltshire has a high proportion of female trees *2 so I will be continuing to look for them. Inspired by the sight, I painted them. You can see here.


1.The role of DNA finger-printing in the conservation of the native black poplar. Stuart A’Hara, Sam Samuel and Joan Cottrell British Wildlife Dec. 2009.

2. Vascular plants in Wiltshire 2009, Sharon Pilkington, County Recorder for VC7 and VC8