This, I’m sure, has been the longest winter since I moved to the Shetland Islands half a lifetime ago. It’s also been one of those winters I remember only too well from the 1990s – months of gales and an endless cycle of hail, rain, sleet and drizzle; all coming out of a sky that is the dullest, darkest, suicide grey.
There was some real winter, crisp and white as snow fell in copious quantities last November, vertically, silently and over night; it rendered the drive impassable and kept us prisoners for days. The reflected light brightened the house and gave it an almost festive atmosphere. James (my husband) was in England, visiting his mother, who was moving into a nursing home. Anna (my daughter) and I lit roaring fires, fed the sheep and the birds and dragged every rug outside to be beaten in the snow.
In the mornings we melted blocks of vegetable fat in a large pan and stirred in anything suitable we could find on the larder shelves: nuts, seeds and dried fruit, porridge oats and out-of-date breakfast cereal. A feast for the birds – spread out at half past three in the afternoon, just before dusk and after the clouds of starlings that darkened the trees all day had flown off to roost.
On the third day of snow a hungry long-eared owl joined the blackbirds, robins, sparrows and chaffinches. For hours it sat motionless in one of the trees in the Round Garden. We put out some minced lamb, hoping that it would take up our offer of convenience food rather than swoop down on a small bird.
Weeks later I was startled by a soft thud on my study window. It was late morning, and as I looked up the wings of an owl spanned all but the whole window, their markings, beautiful subtle fawn and caramel banding, clearly visible. The male blackbird, held in the owl’s talons, looked me straight in the eye.
This early snow brought the promise of a white winter that, as it had done the previous year, would continue until the end of January or even into February, leaving the garden a white frozen wasteland and killing all but the smallest fish in the pond. At least that was the theory at the time. The fish, even those, like carp, with low oxygen requirements, suffocated under the ice.
Since I had a strange encounter last August, I’m not so sure: A large ring in the water and a trail of air bubbles preceded the surfacing of a grey-brown back, followed by a glimpse of whiskered face. The young otter took one look at me, dived, reached the opposite side of the pond in seconds and vanished up the inflow pipe.
Last week, heading west to Bixter, I spotted a dark shape on the grass verge out of the corner of my eye. Fearing one of our cats had fallen victim to one of the cars racing through Tresta at breakneck speed day in and day out, I stopped and found a dead otter – one of three killed in the village this winter. Robert, our neighbour, believes that quite a few more are lost on the road every year, mostly young animals. I wonder if my pond visitor was amongst them?
Three days “between weathers” were announced by a clear sky and a small shower of green shooting stars just before the last weekend in February. The sun, still glued to the southern horizon, warmed the gardener’s face and warmed the crocuses into opening their flowers.