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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. 

Alongside the 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 day Stillington.  

The parish 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 the snow. 

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. 

Although the 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. 

Warmer days 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 the way. 

February brings 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. 

Drifts of snowdrops in the hedge bottoms make a cheering sight against a dark hedge and a frosty winter sky.



As March 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. 

Carrion crows 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. 

The larger 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. 

Swifts, swallows 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 dark colours. 

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 months later. 



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. 

Into the 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.  

The horse 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.