RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails January 6

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My wren has gone.

The frost has got him. There was just one in the garden all year, though goodness knows how he survived last winter.

He used to peek in at the window as I sat writing. He would keep me company down by the garage as I serviced the cars, and sing to me.

Now he has crept into a hole and died with an icicle in his heart.

After the terrible 1962/63 winter, bird counts showed that one pair survived into spring, from 24 before the frosts started on Boxing Day, at Kingley Vale. It was the same all over the country.

It will probably be much the same next spring.

Our cave-dweller, our troglodytes, worshipped and hated for thousands of years, is part of our core existence until only 60 years ago.

Today this tiny little bird is no longer part of the Yin and Yang equation, but is simply enjoyed as a wildlife icon.

Being small with a large surface area relative to its bulk, it loses heat hundreds of times faster than, say, an ostrich.

One year there were 23 here all stuffed into one tit nest-box at night for warmth. Three of these died of suffocation under all the others. The record count for community sleeping is 56, seen in Norfolk in a straw stack.

Happily, Sussex boys no longer go wren hunting over Christmas/New Year. This peculiar custom originated at least 2,500 years ago but probably millennia before that, before recorded history.

Eagles were gods of the sky, snakes and troglodytes, gods of the ground. They were all magic. They represented sun and moon, day and night, summer and winter, sky and earth, white and black, even men and women.

All necessary, all opposites. You couldn’t understand one unless you saw its counterpart.

So wrens were feared, because they crept underground into caves and crevices. I have seen scores of them creeping like mice over the cliffs at Beachy Head.

Wren hunts occurred at the winter solstice, typically St Steven’s Day, Boxing Day.

In France wrens were carried ceremonially in glass boxes, or hanging on long poles, or had ribbons tied to their legs and released in church.

In 1929 Irish lads in Cardiff transposed the wren-myth to Wales, and carried a holly tree with a dead wren inside it tied to an empty whisky bottle singing: “Come and make your offering to the smallest, who is the king.”

They were re-enacting the myth that a wren had betrayed the Catholics to the Vikings. As usual, the wretched wren was a victim of muddled thinking.

Today, wren hunts may be re-enacted with a toy bird. It was all an excuse for a party and who could blame people for that.

Misrule is still allowed for 12 days. Happy New Year, wrens or no wrens.