Country Matters: Deep Freeze

Birds congregate on a frozen lake.

Dec 2019

By The Hodge

‘At Christmas play and make good cheer,

For Christmas comes but once a year.’


Many will be wishing at this time of year for the proverbial ‘White Christmas’; (can we really still blame Bing Crosby after so many decades?) Most so wishing, I suspect, will come from younger generations who haven’t experienced one.

It was as recently as 2010 that we had a prolonged hard spell over the twelve days of Christmas. With daily sub-zero temperatures and a not insubstantial snowfall, life got very hard for some. Yes, at least while the snow was untarnished, the view from a warm house out of the window was, sort of, magical. But once the slush and the mess begin, the magic tends to slip away.

The prolonged cold snap led to many of the lakes in the Cotswold Water Park to freeze over completely for a long period. This proved problematical for the many water birds who count our area as home. Forced to rest on dry land, they are in danger of predation by foxes, badgers etc. Without access to the unfrozen water, they cannot eat their normal diet. Yes, they can find sustenance on land but not when it is frozen solid and covered in snow.

On Christmas Day that year, we discovered that one lake had a small area that wasn’t completely iced over although probably 98% of the surface area was solid ice. On the exposed area was a myriad selection of water birds jostling together like commuters on the London underground at the height of the rush hour. For once, there was no arguing over territory as dozens of swans, ducks and coots shared the tiny remaining area of water. But they couldn’t feed as diving risked coming back up under the ice and certain death.

Death was already around. At least six swans had died on the ice and the living birds were universally hungry. We returned home, gathered up what food we could find and returned. We had mixed corn from feeding our own domesticated birds and a wholemeal loaf. As soom as we started laying food on the ground, the waters emptied and we were beseiged by hungry birds. Even though we are now told bread isn’t good for ducks, it was always the bread that was devoured first but the grains too soon disappeared. Perhaps the bulkier bread gave the illusion of better satisfying their hunger. We repeated the trip later in the day and three times a day over the coming week.

The local supermarket must have been deeply puzzled as to the run on wholemeal bread.

Soon the birds came to know us and they would mass on the bank as we approached. The swans especially would nuzzle our hands with their bills if we weren’t speedy enough in distributing the goodies.

We saw no evidence of any more birds dying before the thaw came. Other people became aware of their plight and they were gradually fed more often as a consequence. Thick ice takes a long time to disappear and many of the lakes in the Water Park were uninhabitable for a long time that winter. But most of the birds pulled through. The swans, who had been so keen to relieve us of our goodies and almost clambered all over us each time, gradually became their usual aloof selves as the water became accessible once more and we gradually gave up our thrice daily trek to feed them.

The moral of the tale? Careful what you wish for! And with that, it’s Happy Christmas from him and Bah! Humbug! from me.

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