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ParchedSandy Winterbottom

Sandy Winterbottom
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June already and a full moon. I take my tea to the top of the garden where I can look out across the hills. It’s been a cold spring and in our small glen these early mornings are still dewy. Cool enough for a thick jumper, fresh enough to clear my head. 

Everywhere is lush and the birds frantically bring up their young – that hectic stage when life revolves wholly around the kids. Behind me, a wee Jenny-wren has stuffed moss into a nest nailed up for swallows on the shed wall, and made a tiny hole in the front. Three gaped-mouthed heads poke out as she darts back and forth to the piles of brash in the neighbouring woodland, collecting insects for her hungry brood. You wonder how they have time to sing these birds, to stop and enjoy life, but they do.

When we first moved here just over twenty years ago, we heard only the stark cackles of carrion crows, but within a few years The Woodland Trust bought-up the 850 hectares of barren grazing and forestry investment plots surrounding us. Saplings were pushed into the dirt and fenced off from the deer. Now the land echoes with cuckoos and the gab-gab of green woodpeckers. My Chirp-O-Matic app tells me there are chaffinches too, and siskins, dunnocks, wrens of course, robins, blackbirds, tree-creepers, song thrushes and warblers. Sparrowhawks slink in noiseless and low. Foxes and badgers creep through the undergrowth at night. 

In the heady days when we believed in offsetting and a few quid could assuage our guilt, woodlands like this were planted all over, but despite the con of carbon credits, they are precious pockets of nature nonetheless. Their future though, feels as precarious as our own. 

On Twitter, the #SilentSpring hashtag creeps north. Plastic lawns spread across our suburbs like an invasive species, but even lush reserves in Yorkshire are reporting few insects this year, a consequence of last summer’s drought and an unusually cold spring. Our damp woodland is a raft of life yet – there are enough insects, but not so many bees this year. Wildlife is struggling to adapt to this flip-flop of weather. Though it is exactly what we were warned of.

I check the nine-day forecast: a 40% chance of rain in a week’s time. Already the burns have dried-up on the hill, the frogspawn all gone. In the first 2020 lockdown, we had no rain for eight weeks. The land became crackle dry. We let the fire-pit grow over.  Predicting the weather is more difficult than it used to be though and likely the forecast will change. I mutter reluctant prayers for a cool wet summer, like summers often were.  

On dry days such as these, motorbikes have taken to racing along the curves of our quiet glen, and delivery vans zip up and down the tracks daily. Folk come for a wee jaunt in the country. I can’t blame them – it’s too beautiful here – but perhaps a cigarette might be thrown from a window, a tire rim scraped along a curb. Many things can start a fire if it’s hot enough, dry enough. The news from Canada is awful, the eastern provinces having their worst wildfire season on record after an extended drought. While wildfires are not unusual there, the sheer size and scale of them this year is exceptional. Over 3.3 million hectares have already burned – about 13 times the usual 10-year average. Smoke engulfs New York and masks are all the rage again.

It feels trivial and selfish to worry about our tiny patch of land when so much of the world already burns. But all that life. 

I wonder too how long insurance companies will pay out for homes and businesses destroyed by these climate catastrophes, like those who no longer insure many for flooding. Suddenly, I am beginning to understand the magnitude of fear that comes with being on the frontline of climate change – a territory that most people in the world have inhabited for decades. 

A huge female buzzard, wings tattered, caws her way across the blue sky. I finish my tea and head back down the garden, already sensing today will be a scorcher; the heat builds and the air dries as the sun arcs upwards. By noon the birds will quieten, their throats parched.


Sandy Winterbottom is a former academic in earth and environmental sciences and author of The Two-Headed Whale, a story of the industrial exploitation of Antarctica and lessons we can learn for the current climate emergency. Published Birlinn (UK) 2022, and Greystone (Canada & U.S.) 2023. Co-founder of Women’s Climate Action.


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