Twelve animals of Christmas

December 18, 2023

Panshanger Park is 1,000 acres of countryside situated between Welwyn Garden City and Hertford. Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust is working with the park’s owners, Tarmac, to manage the park for both people and wildlife. 

December is often a month for snuggling up and spending more time inside, sometimes disconnecting us a little from the outside world and our local green spaces. However, December and Christmas have a number of associations with wildlife and nature. 

So, why are some plants and animals more associated with this time of year? There are a few different reasons; some species migrate to the UK or are more obvious during the winter, some might be eaten during festive celebrations, some of them might be sung about in well-known Christmas melodies and others may have religious, historical or mythological significance. 

In the traditional song ‘Twelve days of Christmas’ there are many animals featured. ‘Four calling birds’ was originally ‘colly birds’ which was an English name for blackbirds. This makes more sense seeing as many of our native birds aren’t calling at this time of year, whereas we’ve seen several blackbirds due to a boosted population of overwintering individuals, migrating in from Scandinavia.

Blackbird in the snow © Tim Hill

The ‘six geese a laying’ has probably come about from the influx of geese over winter, as many species come to the UK from colder climes to enjoy our milder winter temperatures. Goose was a popular Christmas dinner centre piece in the 19th century as referenced in literature such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. 

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is a well-known line from Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song and chestnuts are often sold in shops and markets at this time of year. The sweet chestnut tree is thought to have been introduced to the UK by the Romans who enjoyed eating it. The ‘nut’ is technically a fruit, which is encased by green spiky shells. Most of the chestnuts sold for consumption come from outside the UK, as the climate here isn’t quite warm enough for them to ripen properly. 

Mistletoe has significance all the way back to Druid times, where it was thought to be hung to ward off evil spirits. It is a hemiparasitic plant, as it draws nutrients from its host plant but can also photosynthesise by itself if required. It becomes a lot more visible at this time of year, due to the trees it lives on losing their leaves over winter.

Mistletoe in Panshanger Park © Jo Whitaker

Hopefully these little festive titbits have tempted to you head out and see if you can spot any of the species mentioned above. Panshanger Park is host to all the wildlife and nature mentioned here and more besides. Have a wander and see what you can see. 

Don’t forget to send us in your photos of the park and what you find there to, [email protected]. You can also share them via Instagram, Facebook and X (Twitter), tag @PanshangerPark. 

Jo Whitaker is the Panshanger Park people and wildlife officer. She works for Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust and her role is funded by Tarmac.