DREARY December bowed out in a pretty desultory fashion, paving the way for the warmest New Year’s Day on record.
But after a year of debate about climate change, no one was really celebrating the unseasonal temperatures, thought to have been boosted by warm air wafting in from the Azores.
It may not have helped that this was also the dullest December in 65 years, with only around 26.6 hours of sunshine across the UK, leaving many feeling dispirited – though it didn’t stop some lucky photographers snatching striking pictures of the shortest day of the year.
For some, seasonal affective disorder is a more serious type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, symptoms of which include a persistent low mood, loss of interest in everyday activities, an extreme lethargy and feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.
Nature lovers can struggle with winter depression too on these short days when the sun is obscured and the landscape full of greys and browns.
But the more persistent photographers are up and about early and late to capture those brief dramatic moments when the sun breaks through to set the landscape awash with colour.
On December 21, the winter solstice marks the time when the sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky, giving us shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year: after which it doesn’t seem unreasonable to start dreaming about spring.
Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that around the world the day should have been seen as such a significant time of the year in many cultures, with midwinter festivals marking the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun, and with some ancient monuments like Stonehenge even aligned with the sunrise or sunset at solstice time.
Down in Dorset, one of the UK’s most majestic natural landmarks comes into its own in December, when thanks to the way the Earth moves on its axis there is a rare opportunity to photograph the sun appearing on the horizon through Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast.
Keen photographers arrive in darkness to snatch that holy grail “through the keyhole” shot of sunlight bursting through the famous rock arch, which only occurs for a few minutes each day from mid-December to early January.
If the warm air from the Azores brought an unseasonal feel to New Year’s Eve, the month was not entirely devoid of chilly nights and frosty mornings.
It may have lacked the grim icy resonance of In The Bleak Midwinter, or the reassuring seasonal familiarity of one of John Charles Maggs’ stagecoach paintings, but there were still plenty of moments when the “frosty wind made moan”, bringing a touch of colour to children’s cheeks and a welcome crispness to the morning air.
Wildlife may be hard to spot on these short days, especially when the sun is obscured and the countryside can appear bleak, but snatched snapshots provide a welcome foretaste of the excitement of spring, like a juvenile great crested grebe surfacing amid water glinting like mercury.
Cross-country walking is a lonely exercise at this time of year and the backdrop may look bleak at times, with trees dormant, flowers withered and much vegetation looking half-decayed.
But even when nature is looking at its lowest ebb, there are already signs of bulbs pushing through the topsoil and it’s easier to see birds perching on the bare branches, hungry for a snack.
The welcome whistle of red kites is familiar to anyone living in the Chilterns, while buzzards too are an increasing common sight above our woodlands once more, having quadrupled in number since 1970.
Whether it’s the cry of a tawny owl or bark of a fox or muntjac, there are plenty of evening sounds to remind us that out local wildlife is never too far away, even if many creatures are dormant or hibernating at this time of year.
A timely expedition down the M25 to the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey is a reminder of just how elusive some of our native wild breeds actually are.
Furtive and fast-moving, or sleepy and nocturnal, our stoats and weasels, dormice and badgers are not easy to spot, which makes this centre an important place for education, given that so few children will have the chance to see such animals in the wild.
Back in the woods, our dog walkers and nature lovers are undeterred by cold hands and runny noses, and have been roaming across the Chilterns on the look-out for shots that capture the very best of the season.
2021 was an incredibly tough year for many, dominated by pandemic worries, lockdown restrictions and extreme weather events.
As Bill Gates reflected, it was also a year when we were reminded just how significantly something happening on the other side of the world could affect us at home – but also how change happens “because groups of people get together and decide to make things better”.
We’re not there yet when it comes to avoiding a climate disaster. But we also know that we won’t get everyone agreeing on how to win the battle unless people care about the natural world and the impact we humans are having on it.
Our wonderful photographers are contributing to that awareness with their beautiful portraits of the flora and fauna to be found across the Chilterns landscape, and we are very grateful for their efforts to chronicle the passing year month by month.
A big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month, and throughout 2021. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for the coming year, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.