August is an intriguing time for wildlife. Although birds are relatively quiet at this time of year, insects are out in force. This month sees summer and autumn blending together and there is plenty to discover out in the countryside. So, here are some of my favourite British wildlife highlights during August.
This month, yellowhammers are one of the few birds still singing. They can be seen perching high up on gorse bushes as they fill the air with a charismatic phrase that many birders say sounds like “a little bit of bread and no cheese”.
Migratory British birds such as swifts and blackcaps start to make their way back south this month – swifts are particularly noisy flyers and soon the skies will be much quieter in their absence. Other migrants including swallows and house martins will stay around a little longer and usually depart around September.
Tawny owls may start calling in August, but this usually picks up in autumn and then throughout winter. It is during this time that young birds leave their parents and attempt to establish their own territories, using their calls to announce their presence. The well-known “twit twoo” call of a tawny owl is a combination of voices – the female calls “ke-wick” and the male answers “hoo-hoo-ooo”.
August is a good time to spot hares because farmland is starting to be harvested and crops are cut low to the ground. Keep an eye out for them darting along hedgerows or crouching low to the ground, looking remarkably like rusty stones.
Bats are actively feeding on the explosion of flying insects and badgers are starting to collect their bedding. Dry, warm weather can often mean there are fewer worms available and badgers may be drawn to gardens to drink from ponds.
Unlike red deer which rut in the autumn, roe deer have their breeding season from mid-July to mid-August. During this time a male – which is called a buck, not a stag – follows a female (doe) around and chases her in tight and continuous circles. This behaviour is known as ring-running, and when a ring is stamped into a permanent trail it may be used for future ruts.
August is also good for spotting insects. Dragonflies such as the common darter can be seen flying around ponds and other still bodies of water. They are also found far away from water as they rest on plants in patches of woodland.
This month, the second generation of many butterfly species are on the wing including comma, red admiral and painted lady. For those interested in butterflies, now is the time to contribute to The Big Butterfly Count. Launched in 2010, this UK-wide citizen science survey is running from the 17th July to the 9th August. It’s easy to take part – just choose a place to sit and record the butterfly species you see for fifteen minutes. As pollinators, butterflies are extremely beneficial for the health of the ecosystem but are currently facing severe declines, so the records collected during the count will provide valuable data for conservation projects and research.
This article was originally published on Bloom in Doom as part of my role as Nature Editor. It is the first of a monthly column of the best British wildlife highlights throughout the year.
I am now officially trained as a Shorewatcher for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). I’ve been wanting to learn more about my local wildlife and contribute to marine conservation now I’m living in Scotland, so when I found out about the Shorewatch programme I was keen to get involved. Luckily I managed to complete my training in Inverness earlier this month, only a couple of weeks before the new regulations that now prevent us from going out for anything other than food shopping and exercise. Although I now won’t be able to start Shorewatching for a while, I’m going to use my time to get better at identifying British cetaceans using books in preparation for when I can get started properly.
Shorewatch is a citizen science project that’s all about scanning an area of ocean for ten minutes and recording the presence or absence of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). The areas are especially assigned Shorewatch sites, which are found all over northern Scotland. The data collected is sent to WDC and used to monitor populations of cetaceans and flag up potential problems that may be occurring, such as deep-diving species that are straying into the shallows or a noticeable lack of sightings in an area where we might usually expect them.
Shorewatch is particularly beneficial because it is a completely non-invasive way of surveying. As the volunteers are positioned on the shore instead of in boats, the cetaceans show natural behaviour. WDC also don’t believe in tagging animals, so prominent scars and nicks in dorsal fins are used to identify individuals. For example, the team can recognise Spurtle, a female bottlenose dolphin, from the large area of sunburn on her side.
I haven’t seen any cetaceans in Moray yet, but I’m sure that will change over the coming months. The season will hopefully kick off properly in May, and going by the incredible photography I’ve seen, the bottlenoses really go to town with their acrobatics! However, when all you see is the flick of a tail or the subsequent splash, it can be tricky to figure out what species you’ve seen, so I’m learning how to identify different species in the water. The Moray Firth is famous for its bottlenoses, which are both the largest and most northerly in the world, but many other species have been spotted from Burghead shores including harbour porpoises and even orcas and humpback whales! I would definitely cry if I saw an orca in my local patch, but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. Hopefully I’ll get to see the resident dolphins soon. We all went to Chanonry Point after our theory training to do a practice Shorewatch, and although there were no dolphins, we saw a common seal and a white-tailed eagle! I haven’t seen one since my trip to Carna in 2016, so to be able to watch the “flying barn door” on the east coast was a real treat and a fabulous introduction to Shorewatching.
Last night I had a lovely meal at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey before seeing a talk by Iolo Williams. Despite current news and hysteria, the lecture room was full to the rafters and extra chairs had to be squeezed into gaps.
Iolo’s new book is called “The UK’s Top 40 Nature Sites” and highlights natural gems up and down the country from the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall all the way up to the Shetland Islands. Naturally, Iolo said that every site in England, Scotland and Ireland paled in comparison to those in Wales, “God’s own country”.
Iolo is such an inspiring speaker, sharing his stories with the confidence and laid back attitude of someone chatting in a pub. His passion is palpable and easily transfers to his audience. As well as golden eagles and puffins, Iolo was keen to highlight smaller and lesser known species. I learnt what the lion’s mane fungus looks like, and discovered just how beautiful the marsh fritillary butterfly is.
As I sat listening to Iolo’s favourite wild places, I realised that I’d actually been to quite a few of them myself. It gave me the idea of gathering my own list. Some of them are in Iolo’s book but some are my own additions. I’ve chosen places that offer almost guaranteed sightings of a particular species or the opportunity to get lost in secluded wildness. Either way, I hope people discover and fall in love with them as I have.
Iolo included Anagach in his book but I had to as well. I visited a few times when I was staying at the Grant Arms for the Wildlife Book Festival last spring and was absolutely captivated. I’ve never been in such a vast area of woodland. Although you will often see dog walkers at the edge of Anagach, as soon as you press further in and choose one of many winding trails, you quickly forget about cars, roads and people. Anagach is full of wildlife, from common coal tits and relatively easy to spot red squirrels to far rarer Scottish icons such as pine martens. Listen for crossbills flying over and look for the elusive but gorgeous crested tit, which is only found in the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland. One of my favourite sounds is a trickling stream running through a forest and I indulged my love for it in Anagach – perching on a rock watching water bubble past me between the trees. Unsurprisingly, it is easy to get lost in this sprawling forest, but that’s half the fun.
The Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are notorious for grey seals and I had the privilege of snorkelling with them in June 2018. It was during this visit that I had a seal swim up to me and wrap its front flippers around my leg, which is something I wish I’d photographed but will still never be able to forget.
But despite the excellent views of seals, I’ve chosen the Farnes for their astonishing bird life. Moments after disembarking from the boat we were carefully weaving around nests positioned just off the path, our ears slammed with the onslaught of squawking from razorbills, guillemots, cormorants and everyone’s favourite, the puffin. I’d seen glimpses of puffins between waves before, but on the Farnes you can watch from a front row seat as they go about their business of hunting sandeels and dashing into burrows. For anyone wanting to see their first puffin, the Farnes are the place to go.
It is only recently that I’ve discovered just how special the Burghead Backshore is for wildlife. In just two weeks of living on this small peninsula jutting into the Moray Firth, I’ve seen plenty of cars parked along the bank with binocular-clad birders clambering out to scan the shore. People come from all over, including paying customers on Highland Safaris from Aviemore.
I can’t speak for every season, but so far during late winter I’ve had almost daily sightings of goldeneye, long-tailed duck, eider, red-breasted merganser, turnstone and redshank. For such a small area, the Backshore is bursting even during the lean winter months.
And of course, there are more than birds to be found around Burghead. The Moray Firth is one of the best places in the UK for bottlenose dolphins, and basking sharks and minke whales have also been seen, as well as grey seals. I can’t wait for the proper dolphin season to kick off in May, as I haven’t managed to spot any yet. This weekend I’m going to Inverness to become trained as a Shorewatch volunteer for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, so I can carry out official cetacean surveys in Burghead. I can’t wait to learn more about my local marine wildlife and contribute to conservation.
Isle of Cumbrae
In May 2018 I attended a Field Studies Council weekend course on the Isle of Cumbrae in Ayrshire. It was a jump into the unknown that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was standing spread-legged in the shallows peering down into rockpools and glancing at a sheet of paper I didn’t really understand. The course taught us how to identify biotopes – the combination of a physical habitat and the biological community that lives in it – and although I certainly enjoyed staring down microscopes and poring over textbooks that weekend, the highlight for me was spending two full days on the beach looking for creatures in rock pools. We saw beadlet anemones, a stunning dahlia anemone, acorn barnacles, hermit crabs and common prawns. Every rock revealed a different discovery. Despite spending plenty of summer days at the beach in the past, I’ve never done so much rock pooling before and the FSC course started a new fascination for marine wildlife that I’m hoping to return to now I’m living on the coast.
I can’t believe I’m already two assignments into my master’s degree. Both have been based around the theme of “Writing in the Field” – writing outside as opposed to a typical office environment. This was really useful for me, as up until now I’ve mostly written brief notes outside and then typed them up later at my desk. While this worked for jogging memories, it occurred to me that I was losing out on a lot of detail this way. Photos reminded me of things I saw, but I was glossing over other sensations such as smells, sounds and textures. By paying attention to these senses I found I could create a fuller, more immersive piece of writing that really put the reader in the field with me.
For my first assignment I decided to start a nature journal that I planned to take with me whenever I was out in nature. This would be the basis for my essay in the first assignment. During my research I discovered that many writers use journals to enhance their writing experience. Charles Darwin kept perhaps the most well known example during his voyages on H.M.S Beagle but there are numerous others. Author and artist John Muir Laws said that “journaling will slow you down and make you stop and look.” American author and scientist Aldo Leopold’s nature journals were so significant that the resulting essays became valuable contributions to the field of phenology – the study of seasonal natural phenomena. I also found several studies indicating that being outside is beneficial to creativity, so it made sense to do more writing outdoors!
I found that my nature journal not only benefitted my writing but also enabled me to concentrate more on my art. I was keen to make the pages pretty and yearned to have a journal that would be cool enough for Pinterest. I’ve always loved drawing and painting but it’s often taken a back seat. My usual excuse is that I have no time, but over the past few weeks I’ve started to create quite a large body of work just by snatching a few minutes here and there to make a sketch. I bought a travel watercolour palette with a brush containing its own water which has been a lifesaver. Now I can pop my paints in my bag and take them anywhere, and I’ve really got on well with it so far. I deliberately bought a journal with a ring binder, so I can remove and insert the hole punched pages wherever I want them. A lot of my conventional notebooks have failed so I think having the freedom to go back and add pages in later has helped to keep the creative flow going.
Writing and illustration go well together, so I decided to create a small drawing or painting for each piece in my second assignment – a portfolio of nature and travel writing from the field. I’ve loved setting art projects for myself again, which I haven’t done since school. Not only does it bring some variety to my writing, but it’s enhanced my observational skills by forcing me to note the fine details of my environment. I’m really looking forward to seeing how my nature journal progresses and I hope I can maintain it until the end of my course and beyond!
Recently I was accepted onto the Travel and Nature Writing MA at Bath Spa University, which I’ll be starting later this month. In preparation for this exciting new challenge, I signed up for a travel writing workshop run by Peter Carty, who regularly writes for publications such as The Guardian. Although my focus will definitely be more on the nature half of my MA, there is a lot of overlap with travel and I would love to develop my portfolio in this area.
Peter’s workshop was extremely useful, especially the postcard exercise. Over lunch, we were let loose into London with a blank postcard. The challenge was to find a new and intriguing place and write a short travel piece about it on the postcard, including quotes from people we met along the way. As a wildlife writer I’ve had very little experience with interviews, so approaching strangers and getting quotes was daunting but rewarding. I decided to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology in Fitzrovia, which turned out to be a treasure trove of taxidermy and scientific specimens.
A jar of moles, a penis worm and a dissected rat. These are just some of the specimens on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology. But past the imposing elephant skulls and ominous, pickled jars is an intriguing display of alien-like creatures nobody would notice in the wild.
It’s said that 95% of known species of animals are smaller than a human thumb. The Grant Museum, named after British anatomist and zoologist Robert Edmond Grant, sheds light on the mysterious and microscopic in its Micrarium: a seemingly infinite display of backlit microscope slides that are creatively reflected in a mirror mounted on the ceiling. There are 20,000 slides in the whole museum, but the selection of 2000 in the Micrarium exhibit alone is impressive enough.
“It’s probably one of our more popular exhibits,” explained volunteer Margaret, “We get lots of people taking photos for Instagram.”
I can see why. Step inside this bizarre taxidermic phone box and you can observe minute insects and cross sections of tissues in astonishing and multicolour detail, painstakingly plastered across three walls. Among the specimens are the muscly leg of a flea and a whole squid measuring less than a centimetre long.
“While public displays very much focus on larger animals,” said Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum, “Most natural history collections have thousands of very small specimens kept in their storerooms which are rarely shown to the public.”
Once used for research at UCL, the neighbouring university, the Micrarium now enthuses the general public instead, uncovering secrets of the miniature monsters that crawl well out of human sight. It’s not quite the blue whale at the Natural History Museum, but it’s an insight into 95% of animals on our planet, which definitely deserves a second look.
Last weekend I stayed with my grandmother at her lovely house in Frome, Somerset. I love my mini holidays there; my bedroom window overlooks a meandering river, and on the other side is a bustling market and a glimpse of the library through the overhanging trees. I was particularly excited on Saturday morning to discover there was a Christmas fair in full swing. There’s nothing like a fair in late November to get you in the mood for Christmas. Although I still refuse to play festive music before December, a sprinkling of Christmas spirit is more than welcome, especially in such bitterly cold weather.
Once inside, we joined the throng. Shoppers shuffled along tables laden with all sorts of gifts and bric-a-brac. The Cats’ Protection were selling cat-themed stationary, while a young man at the Somerset Wildlife Trust stand was doing his best to sell membership to a middle-aged woman whose attention was slowly waning. I am a firm supporter of the Wildlife Trusts, but membership recruiters have a way of pulling you in for a short (thirty minute) chat and not letting go. Past experience taught me to avoid his gaze, and I spotted the table I’m always searching for: the one covered in books.
As always, there was a decent selection of dog-eared Maeve Binchy and Danielle Steel paperbacks, but amongst covers showing watercolour landscapes and female silhouettes staring wistfully into the distance was the tail of a fish. I tugged at the fish and my eyes fell on beautiful line drawings of an octopus, jellyfish, seahorses and more. It was such a satisfying cover, and the book was called “Blowfish’s Oceanopedia”. It was one of those dip-in books with titbit information: “extraordinary things you didn’t know about the sea”, it said. As a person who is fascinated by the sea but doesn’t really know anything worthwhile about it, it seemed the perfect read for me.
The price was even better. A brand new book, published last year at £17.99, and I was charged a pound for it. Books were amazing, but books for a pound were magical.
After finishing my loop of the fair – and winning a raffle Christmas present in the process – I returned to my grandmother’s house and instantly curled up in my favourite chair to begin reading. Within minutes I’d learned a decent thing or two about elephant seals. I am quite terrified of elephant seals, but as with my similar unease towards snakes and sharks, I’m also fascinated by them. The Blowfish revealed just how important the southern elephant seal’s “trunk” was to its survival. During the breeding season, males weighing up to 4 tonnes battle it out to win ownership of the harem of females. Understandably, this is a full time job, and prevents males from returning to the water to feed and drink. So, to avoid dangerous dehydration, males use the complex nasal passages and specialised blood vessels in their fleshy trunks to recover around 70% of the water vapour in their exhaled air. It’s a genius example of life-saving recycling.
This is the sort of book I dream of someday replicating; an instrument to share my knowledge and passion with like-minded people. At the moment I’m not an expert in any one field, but the idea of spending decades of your life learning about something and then teaching others in the form of writing is, to me, the perfect way to preserve your work.
The Blowfish, also known as Tom Hird, is a marine biologist who has a deep love for the ocean and life within it. He’s the perfect voice for a potentially complex subject matter, using humour and everyday situations to diffuse a tricky concept. Speaking in the same language as the layman is something some scientists find extremely challenging. I’m certainly not a marine biologist, but nor am I completely naïve to the science of the natural world, so I often feel my combination of knowledge gives me an advantage. I can understand a lot (not all) of what scientists do, but I also appreciate how that needs to be adapted to inform the public without dumbing down and insulting them. I’m sure there are hundreds of published papers on the adaptations of southern elephant seals which required many hours of hard work, but to the average Joe wanting to find out something interesting about wildlife, a book like the Blowfish’s will be a much bigger success. I believe the key to nature writing, or any writing for that matter, is finding the balance between informing and entertaining. The Blowfish’s Oceanopedia has been a source of great inspiration to me – a writer hoping to one day publish books of my own. The passion and enthusiasm in the author’s prose is infectious, and makes me want to jump in the sea right now and see for myself everything he has had the opportunity to witness.
New research has shown that giant tortoises may not be large because of their island lifestyle, as previously thought. A team of researchers has gathered extensive genetic data from both living species and fossils of extinct species to discover the truth of how tortoises have evolved, in an attempt to answer the question of how they have become such giants.
Tortoises are an extremely diverse group of animals, ranging in size from 8cm long to one metre long. The largest species is the Galápagos tortoise, which can weigh nearly 500kg. So why has gigantism evolved in tortoises? Despite studies on these fascinating animals since Darwinian times, the answer is still unclear. It was thought that, like many species, tortoises followed the “island rule”: a tendency of dwarfism among large animals and gigantism of small animals living on islands. For example, in mainland Florida the white-tailed deer is abundant, but in the Florida Keys – a tropical archipelago of islands off the south coast of the state – a dwarf version of the mainland deer is found, known as the Florida key deer.
It is thought that island dwarfism is caused by limited resources, while a reduced pressure from predators triggers island gigantism. However, in the case of tortoises, it was suggested that these animals were already large in size before colonising remote island habitats. With so many giant tortoise species now extinct, it is impossible to uncover the reason behind gigantism in these animals without using the fossil record.
Now, Dr Evangelos Vlachos from the Paleontological Museum of Trelew in Argentina and Dr Márton Rabi from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg put together the most complete family tree of both extinct and surviving tortoise species so far, in an attempt to piece together the reasons for their variation in size. Interestingly, it was discovered that gigantism occurred on the mainland too, in Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America. Interestingly, all of these mainland species became extinct.
“The fossils highlight a great number of extinct mainland giant species and suggest that the evolution of giant size was not linked to islands,” says Dr Evangelos Vlachos, “We expect that warmer climate and predator pressure plays a role in the evolution of giant size but the picture is complex and our sampling of the fossil record is still limited.”
So what led to the extinction of these giant mainland tortoises, and why have their island variants survived? It is thought that predation and climate change contributed to these extinctions, but it is intriguing to think that the island rule may not be the overriding factor for giant evolution, calling for more research into what causes such variation in size among these animals.
Tortoises have roamed the planet for over 55 million years – they survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, but now face an even graver threat: people. Human-induced habitat loss is the most significant threat for tortoises today, and they face an uncertain future. Thanks to research such as Vlachos’ and Rabi’s, we are able to better understand how these successful animals have evolved, and will hopefully continue to evolve for many more years to come.
The trains to Glasgow and Largs and the ferry to the Isle of Cumbrae were all fine. It was when I boarded the bus to the Millport Field Centre that it dawned on me: what on earth had I let myself in for?! I’d booked onto a weekend course run by the Field Studies Council called ‘Marine Species and Habitats: The Biotope Approach’. After volunteering at an aquarium had sparked a new fascination for marine wildlife, I wanted to learn more about what could be found on British shores. I’d done a bit of research using the course’s suggested reading list, and had half an idea what a biotope was, but as I dragged my bags off the bus I wondered if I’d booked myself onto something that would sail completely over my head. I imagined working alongside a team of marine biologists with decades of experience in the field, and here I was with a newborn interest in fish. I was suddenly terrified, and literally marooned on an island for the weekend.
As I was mulling this over in my head, a girl my age carrying a black hold-all asked me if I was attending the Biotopes course. I was thrilled; fate had brought us together on the same ferry and meant I didn’t have to amble around alone wondering where I needed to be. Our rooms weren’t ready yet so we went for a wander towards the town of Millport. Her name was Abbie, and she was currently part-way through a PhD in non-native seaweeds. This was something I knew literally nothing about, but we chatted about uni and wildlife and all things in between. Meanwhile, it was a chance to see where we’d be spending the weekend, and it was beautiful. Of course, almost everywhere is beautiful in bright sunlight, but even so the Isle of Cumbrae promised a fascinating chance to survey marine wildlife.
After a loop around the bay we headed back to the Field Centre and took our bags to our rooms. I had feared with some trepidation what the washing facilities would be like, but was very pleasantly surprised to discover a large ensuite shower, not to mention a bed like a cloud. I hastily unpacked then met the rest of the group for our first briefing. Here I met Emily who worked at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, and before dinner Abbie and I went for a walk with her to the shore to soak up the last sun of the day.
Dinner was macaroni cheese and apple crumble, perhaps one of the most perfect combinations of courses there can be. Then it was time for our first lecture: an introduction to biotopes. My research had prepared me well – a biotope is the combination of a physical habitat and the biological community found living there. Although some of the lecture’s content was lost on me, I left feeling inspired and ready to face new challenges over the weekend. I’d already met lovely people, and all my earlier worries began to feel very insignificant.
Today began early, and by 9am we were down on the beach beginning our first biotope survey. It was a beautiful day for it, and we wasted no time getting stuck in, in my case literally getting my wellies wedged in rock crevices and clinging desperately to my balance. Common species included beadlet anemones, dog whelks and acorn barnacles, but we also found common starfish, hermit crabs, a star ascidian (type of sea squirt) and plenty of seaweed. My knowledge of seaweed species was even smaller than my knowledge of seashore vertebrates, but as Abbie was doing her PhD on them I had a source of very valuable information.
Once we’d covered as much of the bay as we could we ate lunch out in the sun (an excuse for some of the group to catch up with the goings on at the royal wedding) and then headed back to analyse our results and try to determine which biotopes we’d found. This was also an opportunity to play with lab equipment, which I haven’t been able to do since A Level Biology. I had good look at the bryozoa I’d found on a strand of seaweed (below). Bryozoa means “moss animal” and viewed up close reveals an intricate lattice of animals situated closely together. I studied these individuals for a while but couldn’t decide between Sea Mat or Hairy Sea Mat.
After beating the queue and getting served dinner almost first, I went back to my room for much-needed downtime before bed.
Today was another early start, and this time we drove the short distance to the northern end of Great Cumbrae to a much larger site. The weather was a little dreary but armed with quadrats, transects and clipboards we began to survey the biotopes. Findings started off slowly but once we reached the rock pools things really got exciting. Our course leader Paula found a slug species called a sea lemon – a very pretty blob – and a butterfish. Abbie, Alex and I found a sand goby, sand mason worm, lots of brittlestars, more hermits and beadlets, and my favourite from today: a dahlia anemone. It was the largest anemone I’d seen before, and had beautiful striated and brightly coloured tentacles that slowly emerged again once we’d calmed down to watch it properly. Just as I was squatting to try and get a decent picture, two common prawns appeared underneath a nearby rock. I didn’t know if maybe these were boring sightings but I recognised them from my volunteering at the aquarium so was thrilled to be able to confidently identify something in the field.
Back at the lab, Abbie got to work identifying her seaweeds and Alex had an ID test to do for his assignment, so I had a bash at identifying today’s biotopes by myself. Once I’d done that, I realised I’d accidentally brought a tiny brittlestar home with my sea urchin shells. With Paula’s help, I identified it as Amphipholis squamata. Later, Paula asked us what we’d found, and Alex and I had got the exact same biotopes! I was so pleased with myself.
Dinner was Sunday roast and sticky toffee pudding. I must have put on about eight stone this weekend – I’ve been fed like a queen and although my brain has been working overtime, my body hasn’t done so much. After dinner we had our last round-up lecture and went to the bar for drinks. I ended up talking to the two guys from Belfast about Father Ted – it was pretty funny talking to Irishmen about it. I would have stayed longer but I was absolutely shattered. So I headed to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.
The frost coated everything in sight. Like a shimmering white blanket it lay draped over leaf, twig and soil. The spectacle brought a hush to the usual bustle of early morning; for the brief time that the frost was here, a silence that only winter could bring hovered in the air.
There were leaves scattered over the roots of the trees from which they were shed, curled and dry and chattering every time a breeze stirred them. Jack Frost had traced every vein with white crystal, setting down each cold stone beside the next like lines of silver beads. A knot in the wood of a fallen log had been sprinkled with frost too. The perfect cubes of ice were arranged in clusters like the hidden crystals that form inside a geode, except this display was here for everyone to see.
Frost has been a source of delight for thousands of years. Over the course of a few hours, the sleeping streets are transformed into a stunning white sculpture. Perhaps the most magical of all is how fleeting it is; when the sun rises, the silver art melts, disappearing until the next freeze.
Formed from water vapour clinging to freezing surfaces, the white colour of frost is brought by air bubbles that have become trapped in the ice crystals. Hoar frost is the frozen version of dew, formed when water vapour transforms directly to solid ice. Its magical swirling patterns and shapes are perhaps what sparked the deep-set Norse mythology that gave frost a far greater meaning. According to legend, it was in fact the artwork of a mysterious character we all recognise: Jack Frost.
“Then he went to the mountain, and powdered its crest,
He climbed up the trees, and their boughs he dressed
With diamonds and pearls…”
Extract from “The Frost” by Hannah Flagg Gould (1789-1865)
Hannah Flagg Gould’s poem about Jack Frost is a playful representation. After painting the mountains and trees with an artistic flair, he causes mischief in a house by “biting a basket of fruit”, spoiling the food for the occupiers of the house to find the next morning.
It is thought that the legend of Jack Frost originated from Viking folklore. His modern name is an Anglicised rendition of Jokul Frosti, meaning “Icicle Frost”. The son of the Nordic wind god Kari, Jokul was a nymph-like creature who painted beautiful frosty patterns on windows during the night. He was the personification of the chill that arrived with winter and nipped the noses of children with his icy bite.
While Jack Frost is often depicted as a playful sprite with innocent intentions, other cultures recognised Jokul as a more sombre figure – one that was feared and respected. Scandinavian mythology paints a picture of a frost giant that brought not only bitter cold but the black doom of winter that symbolised the end of the world. In northern Russia and Finland, an almighty deity known as Frostman commanded the weather, and was given sacrifices by reindeer herders to persuade him to lessen the severity of blizzards. The villagers would leave bowls of porridge for the Frostman to ensure their crops weren’t touched by the damaging frost. Elsewhere in Japanese folklore, Frostman was a malicious character, the brother of Mistman, who were both keepers of the frost and dew.
Jack Frost is well known but barely understood in modern culture. Most people envisage the elfish creature that decorates the night with beautiful silver patterns that melt with the sunrise. Over time, he has shed the fearsome demeanour that came with the frost giants of Norse mythology. Something as beautiful as sweeping hoarfrost or delicate ice crystals surely couldn’t have been summoned by a menacing omen of everlasting winter. Frost, like the Aurora borealis, is a natural wonder. Although it may not be as sought after as dancing green skylights, it is a microscopic miracle. Whether it is the handiwork of Jokul Frosti will forever be a mystery.