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9 - Stillington Country
There is little
evidence today of the Forest of Galtres as it appeared in medieval times but all
the indications are that it was something like the present state of Strensall
Common. This is an area of mixed wood, scrub and some farmland, a few miles to
the south east of Stillington, which has been largely unchanged because of its
use for military training. The name 'Galtres' which is of Scandinavian origin
and means "boar's brushwood" and it appears to have been open woodland rather
than dense stands of trees. Within that woodland, the original red deer gave
way to roe deer and by the 16th century some 800 fallow deer were recorded.
These were strictly preserved as the stock of the King's deer park.
deer in this landscape of bracken hills and old oaks the hunting licences given
by the King indicate that fox, hare, badger and cat were all present. Some
grazing took place in the forest and over the years, as the villages grew and
agriculture become more important, the woodland was converted into the landscape
of fields, hedges and woodlands which make up the surroundings of the present
contains a rich variety of habitats; farmland, small woods, ponds, ditches and
gardens which are home to a wide range of animals and plants. This provides a
rich pattern of nature throughout the year. It shows that in and around the
village there is a fascinating variety of wildlife which provides a constantly
changing backcloth to everyday life.
The early months
of the year test the endurance and resilience of plants and animals. Gardens
provide havens and feeding places for birds with tits, house sparrows, tree
sparrows, blackbirds, robins and greenfinches jostling for food. In the frozen
fields flocks of winter thrushes, redwings and fieldfares from Scandinavia can
be seen whilst woodpigeons and stock doves descend on green crops poking through
Even in these
cold days there are signs of animal life. Molehills often appear during a thaw
and, on warmer days, rabbits venture out to make the most of winter crops.
trees and hedges stand stark against the winter sky the golden flowers of lesser
celandine can be found in sheltered hollows and aconites make a brave yellow
splash against the dark earth.
towards the end of January see the first stirrings of Spring. A few bees begin
to forage and the birds begin to tune up their spring songs. Blackbirds, mistle
thrush, robin, starling and hedge sparrow all remind us that a new season is on
flocks of lapwings returning to the fields on their way to breeding territories
in the hills. Song thrushes tap snails on their 'anvils' and nest boxes are
eagerly claimed by great and blue tits. This time of year can also bring exotic
visitors such as waxwings feeding on cotoneaster berries as they make their way
back to the Scandinavian forests where they will breed.
snowdrops in the hedge bottoms make a cheering sight against a dark hedge and a
frosty winter sky.
progresses the pace of life quickens. A pale green mist spreads along the
hawthorn hedges and snowy clouds of blackthorn blossom against the bare branches
indicate a 'blackthorn winter'. Daffodils start their glorious display along
the banks of Main Street and the York Road.
begin rebuilding their nest and early nesters such as the blackbird and song
thrushes will be sitting on eggs by the end of the month. Life in the village
goes on against a constant background of birdsong as blackbirds, greenfinches,
goldfinches, tits and collared doves hold forth from dawn to dusk. Garden ponds
and ditches carry the spawn of frogs and toads and insect life becomes more
obvious with ladybirds and bees taking advantage of warmer days. In the
evenings pipistrelle bats begin to be seen around the lofts and barns where they
have spent the winter.
As the tide of
winter visitors moves off a surge of summer birds returns. The chiff-chaff
calling its name from the top a birch tree is often the first sign of the great
body of birds returning from the warmth of Southern Europe and Africa. April is
the month when house martins and swallows return to their familiar nesting
sites. The silvery, tinkling call of the willow warbler and the call of the
cuckoo along South Back Lane are sure signs that winter has been left behind.
mammals also become more obvious as the season advances. Fox cubs - though
rarely seen - emerge from their earths and the first brood of grey squirrels is
born. Rabbits on meadow land enjoy spirited chases and hares, though much less
common, indulge in their energetic boxing matches.
The wild flowers
move on from the golden yellow of dandelion to the bluebells which carpet the
woodland and hedge bottoms. The woods of the parish come into their own with
the unfurling of fresh green leaves and a constant chorus of woodland birds.
The first butterflies, peacock and small tortoiseshell and hoverflies are also
seen in gardens and sunlit glades.
The hectic pace
of natural life is at its peak in the early summer. The glorious displays of
blossom are replaced by the setting of fruit amongst dark green leaves. All is
freshly minted and the crops look well in the fields.
and house martins are etched against blue skies. Occasionally their calls
become more frantic as a sparrow hawk streaks across the rooftops. Turtle
doves, the true sound of summer, are heard around the village and the roadside
verges become blanketed with a white tide of cow parsley. In the woodland,
along the side of the stream, red and white campion brightens the shadows under
the trees and the violet coloured rhododendrons, which serve as a reminder of
the formal parkland, are in full blossom.
An early morning
walk in late May or early June show nature at its best. Over thirty species of
birds can be seen in fields and gardens. Skylarks pour forth their song and
every hedge and wood rings with the calls of birds. Occasionally the deep call
of the heron is heard as it flies from one of the farm reservoirs to a breeding
site outside the parish.
Early summer is
also the best time to see roe deer. These attractive deer standing about 4 feet
tall with a chocolate brown coat can be seen in ones and twos moving back to
woodland where they will spend the day after grazing in the early dawn. The
sight of these deer brings to mind something of how the Forest of Galtres must
have looked in years gone by.
Warm summer winds
can sometimes bring an invasion of the beautiful painted lady butterfly. These
frail insects ride the wind from southern Europe and add yet more colour to
village gardens where tortoiseshell, peacock and large white butterflies are
drawn to the sweet smelling magnet of buddleia bushes.
And yet, even in
the height of summer, there are first signs that the tide of birds which made
their way northwards only a few short weeks ago are returning from their
breeding grounds. Lapwings from the moors flock to the stubbles. Common
sandpiper and oystercatcher from hill streams and greenshank from the north of
Scotland or Scandinavia pass over the village, sometimes alighting on the farm
ponds. These passing visitors mark a turning point and the misty mornings of
late July with bushes cocooned in dew-laden gossamer give a foretaste of the
autumn to come.
August is a time
of harvest. The combines are busy in the fields and the fruit and flowers of
the gardens bear witness to the hard work of the gardener. The Gardening Club
show in mid-month delights the eye and fills the spectator with awe at the scale
and perfection of the produce on display. In the gardens themselves there is
the same keen appreciation by birds as carrion crows and starlings feast on
apples and plums on the tree and blackbirds and wasps gorge themselves on
windfalls. Hedgerows too bring forth their harvest with rose-hips and
blackberries beginning to ripen and sloes and elderberries taking on their rich
In one area
colours are more muted at this time of the year. The mallard which have nested
on the duck pond go into their summer 'eclipse' plumage. Gone are the glossy
green heads and elegant grey backs of the drakes. For a short while they take
on a drabber brown while their winter finery grows through and they once again
look their immaculate selves.
By late August
the main body of swifts has moved off southwards. Their screaming parties no
longer fill the air. The village population of swallows and house martins,
augmented by the year's young birds, feeds on the rich harvest of flies and
midges as they too stock themselves up for their long migration. It is a source
of never ending wonder that these small birds can find their way to southern
Africa and then return to the same barn or cottage eaves in Stillington some six
September is a
month of mellow mornings and golden afternoons. Plums and apples make a carpet
on the lawn and the field mice gather together their winter store of hazelnuts.
The leaves begin
to turn and early morning mists give way to days which are warm echoes of
summer. The birds find their voices again after the hectic rush of the breeding
season and the wistful song of the robin is a sure sign that we are entering the
mellow fullness of autumn. Willow warblers, passing through, give brief bursts
of song as they make their leisurely way southwards. The calls of tawny owls
fill the evening air and the telegraph wires serve as convenient gathering
places for the late swallows and house martins.
mellowness of October comes the calls of winter thrushes making their way
westwards to find a kinder winter home. The thin 'tseep' of redwings can be
heard in the night sky and the 'chack' of fieldfares flying over the fields
reminds us that the seasons have nearly turned full circle.
chestnut trees release their harvest of shiny conkers - aided by well-aimed
sticks - and there is a steady fall of leaves from trees and shrubs, hastened by
the first night frosts. The fullness of the month is reflected in the general
pace of life in the village which becomes more ordered as gardens are tidied
with all prunings and clippings set aside for the village bonfire.
In the grey days
of November lapwings and golden plover can be found on the plough-land, the
plover in their dull winter dress almost invisible against the soil. Mistle
thrushes 'churr' from treetops and grey squirrels gather in their store of
nuts. Moles are as active as ever with many a molehill appearing among the
green blades of winter cereals.
And so the days
slip into December. The birds make the most of the short daylight hours to
build up their energy reserves against the cold of winter nights. The garden
bird tables and feeders come into their own and mixed flocks of tits and finches
forage in the woodland. Sometimes these parties include the elegant long tailed
tit, the black and gold siskin and the brambling from northern forests. Great
spotted woodpeckers come boldly to the garden while jays remain well hidden
amongst the trees. A kingfisher is occasionally seen along the beck where the
fishing is clearly more productive.
Animal, plant and
insect life are bedding down for the winter. The first snows cover the fields
and sharp frosts decorate the hedges with a rime of silver. Bright winter days
remind us that the seasons will turn and that the first signs of new life will
show themselves in a few short weeks.