Shrouded in a deep freeze of frost and ice, the January countryside may appear to be an inhospitable place for wild animals and humans alike. Yet life is everywhere, even on the coldest days, making winter a wonderful time of year to explore the British landscape.
We’ve come across some spectacular photography while putting together the January 2021 issue of BBC Countryfile Magazine, from magical winter walking trails and sparkling marshes to overwintering birds, frozen falls, chilly coastlines and hardy cattle. So if heading outdoors doesn’t appeal, why not enjoy it from the comfort of your home?
Celebrate the month ahead with our pick of the best photography from across the British countryside in January.
Tourists often pass straight through Cheshire, crossing the flat plain across which the M6 and West Coast mainline both surge to a more endearing elsewhere. If the county makes an impression on them, it might only be to remark that the cows’ two-tone hides mirror the county’s half-timbered old manors, and recall that their milk is used to make a pale, crumbly cheese.
Yet there is much to love about Cheshire, including its incredible castles, such as 13th-century Beeston Castle, built on the banks of an Iron Age hillfort.
Set in a hidden corner of Clackmannanshire, to the north of the River Forth, is picturesque Gartmorn Dam. Surrounded by woods beneath the Ochil Hills, it lies within minutes of Stirling, Alloa and the ancient county town of Clackmannan, making it a perfect destination for an easy escape. Gartmorn is particularly appealing now for its overwintering birdlife.
Goldeneye feed on the open water, generally in small, loose congregations. The male in particular is a handsome, medium-sized diving duck. It is black and white with a greenish black head and a circular white patch in front of the striking golden eye – a feature it shares with the smaller females, who are mottled grey with a chocolate-brown head. In flight, they show a large area of white on the inner wing, while on the water they give an air of unperturbed calm, their dramatic eye an unmistakable presence. Watch as they dive abruptly, resurfacing after a minute or so. And though slightly comical due to their oversized, bulbous heads, they are masters of the cold thanks to their winter fat reserves.
For a glimpse into Britain’s prehistoric past, scale the wild heights of Dunkery Beacon in Exmoor National Park to meet some of its earliest extant inhabitants: distinctive ponies that have grazed its heather-clad flanks for thousands of years.
According to the Exmoor Pony Society, founded a century ago in 1921 to preserve the now-rare horse breed, this ancient race remains virtually unchanged since the last Ice Age.
A long forelock and mane shield its neck from rain and snow, fleshy pads – known as ‘toad eyes’ – protect vision and, in winter, its two-layer pelage – a short, woolly undercoat and thick, greasy outer coat – provides necessary warmth and water resistance.
At the mouth of the wide Blackwater Estuary lies a lonely peninsula almost as flat as the North Sea itself.
Now a 243-hectare reserve, the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Tollesbury Wick marshes is a rich medley of reed beds, salt marsh and mudflats. It is also a hauntingly beautiful place that really comes into its own in winter.
One notable avian resident to look for when the nights draw in is the marsh harrier. Once a rarity in Britain during winter, growing numbers (especially females) now forgo their annual flight to Africa, preferring to hunker down in refuges such as Tollesbury Wick. With a wingspan of 1.2m, it is the largest of Britain’s harriers and is identifiable by the shallow ‘V’ shape of its wings when soaring.
At Attenborough Nature Reserve, hundreds of starlings swarm the pale winter sky. They move as one, twisting and turning, rapidly changing direction, yet never break rank. The formation flows like liquid, darkening as the birds cross over each other, then paling again as the birds stretch out.
The murmuration is a work of art in the sky, the birds’ swirling movements reminiscent of the practice of t’ai chi. As the sun sets and the starlings drop to the reed beds to roost, you know the spectacle is over.
Lying within 10 miles of Newcastle upon Tyne’s city centre, the short stretch of shoreline between Seaton Sluice and Whitley Bay is typical of the Northumberland and Tyne and Wear coast.
Industrial relics, rocky headlands, sandy coves and fossil shales follow each other in quick succession, with an abundance and variety of wildlife wherever you look.
Central to the scene, and a dominant feature from almost all viewpoints, is St Mary’s Island, standing just a few hundred metres offshore. An island only at high tide, it’s easily reached when the waters recede by means of a causeway that leads through an extensive area of rockpools.
There are whooper swans from Iceland and similar but smaller Bewick’s swans from Russia, both sporting distinctive yellow-and-black beaks. They are a different beast to the familiar orange-billed mute swans at your local park – prettier and altogether wilder.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney, and the peaty flatlands of west Norfolk, is one of the best places to experience these heavenly visitations. A bit bleak, maybe? Not at all. If you like your creature comforts, this is the winter wildlife spectacle for you.
Over the centuries, the Scots have welcomed the new year in a wide variety of ways. In most areas, Hogmanay has long constituted the biggest community event on the calendar – often bigger by far than Christmas.
The term ‘Hogmanay’ was traditionally used to indicate both New Year’s Eve and a New Year’s Eve gift. The earliest recorded Scottish usage comes from 1603, when the Kirk-Session of Elgin rebuked a man for “singing and hagmonayis” at new year.
There are many other forms, including hogmana, hug-me-nay, hangmonick and the wonderful huggeranohni, recorded in Shetland in 1948. The etymology of the term is unclear; scholars have argued for French, Greek, Norse, Scandinavian, Goidelic or Flemish roots.
Perhaps the most compelling possibility is it stems from the medieval French aguillaneuf, which had the same meaning, and could be rendered as hoguinané. The French may in turn derive from the Latin hoc in anno, meaning ‘in this year’.
“Late lies the wintry sun a-bed, A frosty, fiery sleepy-head; Blinks but an hour or two; and then, A blood-red orange, sets again.” Thus wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem Winter-Time.
There is a magic in the blend of low light, snow and frosted foliage that you cannot find at any other time of year. Head outdoors this January for more winter delights.
Dew forms on a late-autumn spider’s web then freezes in the early hours of the morning to create a diadem more precious than any bejewelled trinket in a royal museum.
Lochs and mountains
The spectacular peaks of Cul Mor, Stac Pollaidh and Cul Beag – some of Britain’s most spectacular mountains – rise from the glaciated landscape, with Lochan an Ais nestled at their feet.
From Loch Duich and the familiar sight of Eilean Donan Castle all the way to Cape Wrath at the north-west corner of mainland Scotland, this is a land of wonders. Settlements here are small; distances between them are long and can be slow, especially when roads are icy.
Winter journeys require careful preparation. If you venture far from the roads, particularly if going up the hills, experience of winter walking is necessary. Alternatively, go with a local guide. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, too. Winter storms are fierce and exhilarating – but you don’t want to be caught in one in the hills.
Sunrise over snow and water
A succession of sub-zero nights transforms the Brecon Beacons National Park into a winter paradise of snowy ridgelines, frosty fields and huddles of bare-branched trees. In the north of the park is Llyn Syfaddan, or Llangorse, one of the largest natural lakes in Wales and an important habitat for winter birds, seen here with the snow-dusted peak of Pen y Fan in the background. Make it to the lake for sunrise on a January morning and you may spot starlings, bitterns, water rails, coots, great crested grebes and kingfishers.
The hairiest Highlanders
Magnificently shaggy Highland cattle, seemingly unperturbed by the frigid days of January, possess a number of cold-coping characteristics, including a pair of long, curved horns: the perfect tool for uncovering food from beneath thick winter snow. They are a hardy breed, a characteristic noted by writer Daniel Defoe in 1724: “These Scots ‘runts’, so they call them, coming out of the cold and barren mountains of the highlands of Scotland, feed so eagerly on the rich pasture in these marshes that they thrive in an unusual manner, and grow monstrously fat.”
New Year’s Day marks 126 years since the 58km-long Manchester Ship Canal opened to traffic. Construction of this incredible feat of engineering, with its five massive locks, took seven years and cost many workers’ lives. After Queen Victoria opened it in 1894, the waterway allowed ocean-going vessels to navigate directly into the heart of Manchester, turning it into Britain’s third busiest port.
Early 19th-century Cley Windmill, now a B&B, is a poignant landmark in a sweepingly romantic spot, presiding over marshes and the River Glaven in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Norfolk.
The evening sun’s golden kiss sets the vast, empty sands of Holkham Beach aglow. Part of Holkham National Nature Reserve, the dunes are home to rare plants and invertebrates, including one of only two antlion colonies in the UK.
Crisp crunchy frost underfoot, bright, sharp air in your lungs: energise body and soul with a bracing walk on a winter’s morning in Petworth Park in the heart of the South Downs National Park, West Sussex.
Cumbria has one of the highest densities of peregrines in the world, with between 90 and 110 breeding pairs. Non-breeding juveniles migrate for the winter, but established birds remain in their mountain territories. Look out near inland lakes and on the coast for diving peregrines, which can reach speeds of 321kph as they ambush birds below.
A mile or two from the bustle of Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lake District National Park stands a lonely oak on the edge of Kennel Wood, at its most enchanting after a night of snowfall. In winter, trees like this slow their energy consumption and growth – a dormancy similar to that of hibernating animals. Fuel up on coffee and cake in the town of Bowness-on-Windermere then make for the hills in search of this wonderful winter spectacle.
Winter turns Pistyll Rhaeadr – a deep-cut gorge and crashing falls – to a frozen cathedral of tinkling icicles and petrified pools. “What shall I liken it to? I scarcely know, unless it is to an immense skein of silk agitated and disturbed by tempestuous blasts, or to the long tail of a grey courser at furious speed,” wrote the 19th-century author George Borrow in Wild Wales.
Majesty on the loch
The rugged setting of this picturesque west-coast village 30 miles north of Ullapool contributes to its icy conditions. The mountain peak of Suilven provides the perfect snowy backdrop to the village. Hike up it, or simply marvel at it, then head to the harbourside, where Peet’s Restaurant serves locally produced food with bonus views across the loch.