Nature Notes from the Boat (Christmas 2020 & New Year 2021)

Cumnor Parish News, Christmas 2020 & New Year 2021

December and January on the Thames can be the most unpredictable of months. Autumn storms often lead to winter flooding and last year was no exception. The Thames had already breached its banks by Christmas Eve and our high water levels lasted until spring.

We are lucky as we have a cat early warning system that is far more reliable than any Environment Agency alert. In fact, Lolly has such a good record of flood prediction that she was featured on a local radio station during the notorious 2007 floods. It is not just a case of watching water levels rise and raising the alarm, she seems to sense before the banks are breached that groundwater levels are increasing and that soon the lane that leads to our moorings will be cut off – The Thames is a wily fellow and when in spate sneaks around the back of our moorings and creeps up the lane. Our car park will be dry as our means of escape floods – and Lolly knows. Somehow she perceives when it is time for us to act. For the most part, she tries to lead us to higher ground and becomes agitated and insistent if we misunderstand or ignore her. We have interrupted neighbours’ Christmas dinners before to ask them to move their cars to higher ground. This has been met with looks of confusion when we tell them it is by order of the cat, but those who know Lolly are quick to act. We even receive text messages from absent neighbours asking whether Lolly thinks their property will be safe and she has never been wrong.

She is not just our means of raising the alarm, but she is also our way of measuring the flood depth. She has never been a cat content to stay dry and curled up in the warmth of the boat. We will often find her in the car park watching for fish as the waters rise or recede. So, when people call to ask us how the flooding is, we will usually remark that it is “belly high” or “sock high on the cat”. It has become our standard unit of measurement, but I am not sure it will catch on in the scientific community.

Ours are not the only lives that are affected by flooding. The fields and park beside us disappear beneath the Thames and this, in turn, impacts our local wildlife. The water never gets too deep but we leave seed on the benches for the birds and squirrels until they have access to the ground again. Sometimes, when we have been left alone for too long and there is no one around to stop us, we hold concerts in our garden to entertain the swans.

This year Christmas and New Year plans seem more uncertain than ever. We are entering another national lockdown as I write this and, like many of you, we do not know whether we will see our families. Whatever happens, come flood or frost or pandemic, we will share this festive period with our wild kin. Marie, Pierre and their young crows will still call on us for breakfast. Tim, our mucky mallard, will join me as I check our wildlife cameras, the swans will continue to knock daily on the side of the boat when they want food, and we will wait silently after darkness for glimpses of our local otters who return when the river quietens of humans.

We will also mark the turning of the year in the company of little grebes and a little egret or two – old feathered friends who stop briefly on these waters before the pull of their journey carries them to landscapes new. Little grebes are aptly named because they are so small that at first glance they look like ducklings. I have never seen one in summer colours, only in the muted palette of winter as they swim and dive in the shallows beside the reeds looking for small fish. The reeds also host the little egrets for a few days as the calendar changes, their yellow “boots” shining brightly out of the darkness of the shallows reflecting like Christmas lights upon the water.

Whatever happens this year, Christmas and New Year for us will be about home, and we will follow the advice of Kenneth Grahame: No animal according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter. It is time to sit back, reflect and make plans for a better year to come.

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