10 ways to enjoy a wonderfully wintry walk

Bumblebee © Jon Hawkins / Surrey Hills Photography

It is well documented that getting outdoors is good for our health and wellbeing. Why not take the opportunity this winter to get outside and explore your local chalk stream and its surroundings, writes Maggie Shelton.

Going for a winter walk allows for a different kind of wildlife experience. There are fewer leaves on the trees, meaning birds are easier to see. There is a special sort of beauty in sunlit trees against dramatic skies. Fungi are abundant and frosty patterns trace the ground. Many of our wild places are less busy, giving you a better chance of seeing shy species if you move slowly and quietly.

Whether you like getting mildly lost in the woods, having a cobweb-busting walk on some windy hills, or enjoying a stroll around your local green space, here are ten things to do this winter in the varied habitats around our local chalk streams.

1. Listen for bird songs.

There are lots of recordings online to help you familiarise yourself with local species before your stroll. Birds like Cetti’s warbler, kingfisher and song thrush can all be found on and around our chalk streams. Although elusive, their songs are distinctive; use this to help you see where they are hiding!

2. Look for fish.

Peer into the water from the footpaths that follow our chalk streams, or bridges that cross them in towns and villages. See if you can spy spotted brown trout, and look out for grayling with its distinctive red-tinged dorsal fin. In the winter months, trout will be using their tails to excavate ‘redds’ in the riverbed - gravelly depressions into which they lay their eggs.

Woodland in winter.

3. Enjoy the elements.

Notice the wind blowing on your face, feel the cold on your cheeks, take a moment to breathe in the earthy smells of winter, or see if you can hear water bubbling. Take a pause and really experience your walk.

4. Spot tracks and footprints.

Winter is a great time to spy where small and larger mammals are travelling. See what footprints you can spot in muddy paths or by the edge of silty puddles. You can go one step further and identify the species you find – there are many images of different tracks online.

5. Search for lichens.

Lichens gain their food from algae or bacteria, and some can be indicators of good air quality. You can find them growing on both trees and man-made structures. Again, there are many images and field guides online to help you identify what you find.

6. Be a tree detective.

Can you identify winter trees from their leafless twigs? The size and position of buds, the colour and texture of bark, and the presence of sap can all help you in your quest. The Woodland Trust has some great advice on how to spot your favourite species in their wintry disguise.

7. Make a frozen sculpture.

Collect some fallen berries and leaves, pop them in a pot or tray with water and a loop of string for a handle, and leave the mixture outside on a frosty day. Hang your masterpiece somewhere that catches the sun and watch it twist and glisten as it melts.

8. Feed the ducks.

Our feathered friends appreciate a boost this time of year! Take along some dry lentils, dry porridge oats, old lettuce, or frozen peas and distribute them on the ground. This is better than throwing bread into ponds or lakes – it is less nutritious and if uneaten can pollute the water and attract vermin.

9. Get festive with nature.

Pick up some twigs and take them home to make a small Christmas tree decoration. Use natural string or wool and hang it up as a reminder of your winter walk.

10. Hunt for buried treasure.

Geocaching is a great way to involve all the family on a riverside walk – use your mobile phone’s GPS system to look for hidden treasure on your route. Better still, leave your own treasure in the cache for others to find and enjoy!

Our chalk stream habitats have international ecological significance. Maggie is the Community Catchments Officer for Watercress & Winterbournes – a Heritage Lottery-funded project which is celebrating and protecting the habitats and heritage of seven chalk stream tributaries of the rivers Test and Itchen.

The project is currently in its development phase, and is working closely with 16 partner organisations and a number of community groups to collect thoughts and ideas. If you are living in any of our catchment areas it would be great to have you join us!

For more information please contact Maggie on maggie.shelton@hiwwt.org.uk or 01489 774428.