Sunday, February 9, 2020

Wintering: A Season with Geese - Stephen Rutt

After years of sensibly reading one book at a time (finishing them in a timely fashion and finding the next book comes along quite naturally - it's all very civilised and productive) I've fallen back into the bad habit of having half a dozen things on the go and not finishing any of them. It's frustrating but I'm slowly catching up with myself.

One book that I've been meaning to finish for far to long was 'Wintering', and today I've thoroughly enjoyed doing just that. 2018/19 must have been a remarkably busy time for Rutt debuting with 'The Seafarers' in May and 'Wintering' coming out in September.

The mood of 'Wintering' is different to 'The Seafarers', a sister rather than a sequel. As a child I was quite keen on birdwatching, but it's a hobby that didn't really survive the move from Shetland to Leicestershire where it simply wasn't considered safe to go wondering off into the countryside on your own.*

Now I live in a city centre the bird watching opportunities are... different. My flat is next to a river and a park, but it looks over a carpark. From my window I see a surprising number of gulls, crows, peregrine falcons, pigeons, the occasional egret or heron, and at the right time of year I hear geese (rather more than I see them).

The river, amongst other things, gives me a lot of fearless swans (who are quite ready to mug you if they even suspect bread) the occasional rare gift of a kingfisher, the usual compliment of ducks, coots, and moorhens, and in the winter a good number of geese. Mostly Canada geese (which I love, they're elegant with a beady eyed intelligent look about them) and greylags. They are one of the joys of winter.

In this book Rutt references the depression that he talked about a little more in 'The Seafarers', mostly in relation to seasonal affective disorder, but it's not really what this book is about. This one is much more concerned with bird watching, what it’s like to go out into the cold in search of a bird and why you might do that.

I loved 'The Seafarers' and I've loved this book too. Rutt's writing is worth spending time with. He's thoughtful and interesting. He's neither sentimental or romantic about his subject, but there's clearly a deep love and enjoyment for it. As with ‘The Seafarers’ there’s also a lot more to think about here, including the implications of changing and shifting bird populations.

The way Rutt approaches the thorny issue of hunting/shooting is interesting too. It’s something discussed in passing rather than in depth, and without emotive language. Farmers do not regard large flocks of geese on their fields with the same enthusiasm as birdwatchers do, but it seems like there’s room for debate as to how much damage they do. By stripping that debate back to the figures there’s room for conversation which seems important to me.**

The whole book makes me want to look closer and learn more and maybe even find an up to date field guide for British birds.

*This was the time, and place, where Colin Pitchfork murdered 2 teenage girls and the resulting DNA manhunt (the first of its kind). It added to the sense of culture shock coming from Shetland where no such concerns existed.
** It’s easy to be anti shooting, and anti interfering with nature, but the current situation is undoubtedly more complicated than that. The current conversations about re wilding and re culturing the Scottish Highlands are one example.


  1. I'm constantly amazed by the amount of wildlife in urban areas - we have a canal, river and lake near us, and they're all close to buildings and busy roads but, like you, we regularly see herons, swans, geese, moorhens, coots, mallard and various other geese - and even an elegant pair of great crested grebe.

    1. I’d love to see grebes! It’s surpring what turns up and thrives in urban areas, Kites are another species that are getting closer and closer to the city.