Wednesday, December 8

Which way do we face?

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Observing the movements of sheep can help to predict the weather.

WITH the second full moon high in the sky since the winter solstice of Dec 21, may I wish all readers ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’, or a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

I am totally confused with birth signs for in the Chinese calendar, I find that I was born in the Year of the Dog, yet in astrological terms I was born under the sign of the Ram. Am I a dog or a sheep?

My dog Holly was actually born in the Year of the Dog. Although a Hungarian hunting dog by breed, she is frightened by sheep, rams and goats when I take her daily on a long walk through the fields near my house but she has a penchant for chasing squirrels, pheasants and the occasional rabbit.

Currently all sheep and goats in the fields are keeping well sheltered as snow sweeps over the United Kingdom. With their thick woollen winter fleeces, they use their innate intelligence to detect from which direction the icy blasts are emerging to shelter against the lee-side of walls and hedges.

The snow-laden winds pass over them, deflected by the tops of the hedges, to land down wind, away from the animals, creating snow drifts further afield.

When it comes to shelter, sheep and goats are particularly astute animals, grazing purposely from one area of a field to another section as, in winter, they follow the warmth of the sun.

For many years, I have observed the daily summer movements of both sheep and goats locally in the United Kingdom and in some mountainous terrains in the northern hemisphere.

In the heat of the summer months, they descend from south facing valley slopes in the early morning to climb up to graze on the cooler north facing slopes of river valleys.

At midday they descend to the valley floor for a gentle siesta and later take off to graze the south facing slopes to allow the gradual dying embers of the sun to warm them before sleeping that night.

Do we live in houses with the best possible aspect? In the northern hemisphere, to reduce winter fuel costs, it is advisable to own a house with a south facing aspect. In the Antipodes, a house with a north facing aspect is preferable.

Unfortunately all the windows in my UK house face either east or west. That too has its advantages for I can see the sun rise in the east in the early morning and witness the beauty of spectacular sunsets in the evening. It does not, however, help my winter heating bills.

Architects nearly always consider this aspect when designing a new building and frequently use glass to either allow sunlight and heat into their creation or to reflect sunlight in order to keep the building cool.

Last summer, The Shard, a very tall and relatively new construction in the City of London made essentially of steel and glass, was put to the test. The reflective glass structure worked most effectively but as the sun moved overhead during the day, the reflected rays of the sun focussed on the car park below. Consequently several cars caught fire and the car park is now temporarily closed.

This scenario was not dissimilar to when, as a Boy Scout, I used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays down onto kindling sticks to light a camp fire. We were not allowed to use matches.

The current craze in the UK is having solar panels installed on south facing roofs of houses to save on personal electricity bills and to supply unused energy into the National Electricity Grid, receiving payment for doing so.

I frequently receive cold-calls from companies promoting solar panels, but when I tell them the directional alignment of the roofs of my house they immediately put down their phones.

From my front garden I can see the steep north facing slopes of the Blackdown Hills on the Somerset/Devon border, clad mostly in trees with some farmland interspersed. If I visit the gentler south facing slopes on the other side of this hill mass, I find verdant pastures grazed by sheep, goats and dairy cattle all year round.

Farmers, wherever they are in the world, recognise the importance of the direction in which their land is facing. Yes, the sun’s rays reach both northern and southern facing aspects of any slope but on the north facing slopes they are dissipated over a wider area. Thus the slope is relatively colder than that of a south facing slope where the heat is more concentrated and the land surface is that much warmer.

Wherever we live in the world, we well know which rooms in our houses are cooler and which rooms are warmer at different times in our daily lives. Even each room has its own micro-climate.

In Sarawak and Sabah, a few degrees north of the equator, we are concerned about keeping cool when in our daily work and throughout the night. Some of our garden plants require direct sunlight to thrive and others prefer shady locations. Our micro-climate affects our behavioural patterns and our daily attitudes to life.

Shopping in Kuching is an ordeal between noon and 2pm in cloudless skies. How many people do we see on the streets clutching umbrellas to protect themselves from the overhead sun or students on their lunch breaks protecting their heads with the widest schoolbook at hand?

Europeans often boast of their holiday suntans acquired during sunbathing in southern climes but such overexposure to the strength of the sun’s rays on a south facing beach can have disastrous health effects in sunstroke and sunburn.

The very aspect of a beach does affect the degree of concentration of the sun’s rays. In the tropics, even under cloudy skies, ultra violet light is strong as I once found out to my chagrin whilst sitting on the beach at Damai thoroughly engrossed for several hours in reading a book.

Solar energy is the very tool that affects all our lives and the changing aspects we face in our daily movements. This aspect has affected the location of settlements and farming patterns since early man. Our landscapes have been moulded by the concentration of the sun rays on slopes and, in nature’s larger scheme, wind directions and precipitation levels.

Often by viewing the movements and inclinations of animals, we can predict almost imminent changes in the weather. My local sheep and goats are my instant weather predictors, for late one afternoon and before sunset, the herd moved close to a south-east facing hedge as north-westerly winds began to increase in force.

That evening a snowstorm was in progress but by the following morning, whilst snowdrifts remained in the locality, the sheep appeared unscathed. What better weather sensors than sheep?

As I may freeze here at 50 degrees north, I wish all my friends, former students and colleagues in Sabah and Sarawak a guaranteed warmer Chinese New Year at five to six degrees north of the Equator. Today you must still be recovering from the family reunion dinner held a few evenings ago or from open house visits. Enjoy the oranges and gratefully receive the angpows.