After the Autumn Equinox at the end of September, all lingering echoes of summer finally fade. In my mind, October is the truest month of autumn. This is the time when the paint pallet changes its hues from greens to russets and deep gold, and nature’s full bounty can be enjoyed. November brings the frosts and the storms.
Autumn weather is turbulent. High pressure means sunny days, clear night skies and fog or frost in the early morning. But when the pressure drops, the jetstream brings banks of moisture to our shores, which are stirred up into storm systems by the contrasting temperature fluctuations.
In cold weather, broad leaves can be vulnerable to damage from ice and frost, and act as a sail in the wind risking the stability of the tree. Lower light levels through winter months means less photosynthesis is possible, making maintaining a full canopy of leaves an expensive liability for the trees. The drop in temperatures in October trigger many of our native trees to begin withdrawing useful chemicals from the leaf cells, such as sugars and chlorophyll (the green pigments), in preparation for shedding the leaves later in the season. The removal of green pigments reveals the reds, yellow, russets and golds of the other leaf chemicals, resulting in that familiar autumnal colour change of our park, garden and woodland trees. Eventually the trees will cut off supplies to the leaves, sealing the join at the base of the stem, and gusts of wind will pull the leaves loose and send them spiralling to the ground. Nothing in nature is wasted of course, and the nutrients that the tree wasn’t able to extract itself, will be broken down by invertebrates, fungi and soil microbes ready to be taken back up by the tree in the spring when it needs to produce a new crop of leaves.
One of the delights of an autumn walk is rustling through piles of fallen leaves; another is fungi. The fungi fruiting season hits its peak in autumn, triggered by the combination of warmth and moisture the changeable weather creates. The variety of fungi is astounding, from brackets to toadstools to slimes, cups and earthballs, fungi can appear in almost any size and shape or colour. Each species has its own preferences, some grow in the soil, others on dead wood, and some feed on living trees either as a parasite or in a symbiotic relationship. With a fantastic array of common names such as fly agaric, poison pie, yellow brain, amethyst deceiver, stinkhorn, green elf cup, panther cap, destroying angel, and candle-snuff, fungi are a feast for the imagination as well as the senses of sight and scent. Some fungi are edible of course, but always seek expert advice before harvesting any fungi.
A little easier to identify reliably are the fruits of our hedgerows. Hawthorn, sloe, rowan, rosehip, and wild hops can all be found ripe for the picking throughout the autumn. A little bunch of berries and seedheads makes a nice seasonal display on a windowsill, whilst many of the fruits make great additions to gin or can be cooked into vitamin packed syrups and tonics, but always remember to leave plenty for the wildlife.
So who else will be feasting on this hedgerow bounty? Many of our familiar mammals from foxes to wood mice, even badgers, will plunder windfalls and low hanging fruit, but the topmost branches are the domain of the birds. Resident species such as blackbirds and song thrushes rely on this food source when invertebrate food runs low, but their numbers will be swollen by cousins from the north. Depending on continental and artic weather systems, and food resources in Scandinavia and other northern regions, migratory birds can begin to arrive in the UK from late October, continuing to flood in through November and early December. Some birds pass through on their way further south and are known as passage migrants; flycatchers and yellow wagtails to name a couple. They are joined on their journey by birds that have summered in the UK, including blackcap and chiffchaff, although increasingly these species are being recorded overwintering in our gardens. As birds leave our shores, others arrive. Redwings and fieldfares are both species of thrush which breed in the far north, but will move around our countryside in flocks through the winter months feeding on berries such as yew and hawthorn.
October is peak conker month. The nuts of the horse chestnut are famous childhood toys, but the tree is not originally a native to the UK, although it is certainly naturalised in our countryside and parkland. In recent years the horse chestnut has come under attack from a number of pests and diseases, including leaf miners. The tiny caterpillars of the leaf miner, tunnel through the leaves, between the layers of the leaf structure, resulting in disruption of the trees ability to photosynthesise. Historically, conkers were used as a raw ingredient in soap making, especially during the Second World War when traditional fats and other ingredients were in short supply.
By November temperatures have taken a noticeable plunge, and clear nights often result in frost. Creatures that rely on warm temperatures, or those who feed on those who do, have to initiate winter survival strategies. Some of the more mobile creatures, as already discussed, head south on long migrations. Others simply have to wait out the cold weather. Hibernation is the famous technique used by hedgehogs and bats, but is also how some more unexpected creatures see out the winter. Butterflies and moths are a feature of our summer gardens, but where do they go in winter? Some species such as the red admiral and peacock butterflies, and the herald moth will overwinter much closer to home than you might suspect. A garden shed, garage, porch, or an ivy-clad tree-hollow, can provide the perfect conditions; a stable temperature and secluded location, which these insects seek out in late autumn. Hibernation is not without danger, requiring the insects to store energy and rely on excellent camouflage to protect from predators, but being on site when the weather warms gives these species a head start over the long distance travellers.
In October and November…
Visit: The deer park – many of our city parks, and the grounds of former stately houses, (such as Bushy Park or Richmond Park in London, and my most local National Trust property Petworth Park in West Sussex, but also many other locations around the country) as well as nature reserves, are host to large herds of deer. October is the month when three of our deer species, red deer, sika deer and fallow deer, put on a spectacular display. Of course, the display is not for us, it is solely about a very important feature of the deer calendar; mating season. For a few weeks in autumn, the male deer (known as ‘stags’ for red and sika, or ‘bucks’ for fallow) complete for the attention of a harem of females. Barely eating or even sleeping, the males perform a feat of endurance, defending their group of females and holding territory in a display of strength, aggression, and testosterone-fuelled posturing. The groaning calls of the males can carry over quite long distances, and the effort required to produce these deep guttural sounds repeatedly is one indication to the female as to the fitness of the potential mates.
The deer herds in public parks are accustomed to people, and can be much easier to observe than those in the wider countryside, giving a good opportunity to view one of natures great annual events.
(Please remember however, that although used to seeing people, these deer are still wild animals and should be treated as such. Keep a good distance from the herds, especially the males as these can be aggressive and dangerous at this time. Children should remain under close supervision, plus keep any dogs on short leads and well away from the deer.)
Wildlife recap: Winter migrants arriving from northern regions, including redwing and fieldfare, fabulous fungi, and hibernating butterflies or moths. Listen for the classic ‘twit’ and ‘twoo’ of tawny owls as the young birds are vocal at this time of year, when dispersing to find their own territories. Experience the majesty and primal energy of the deer rut.
Remember: Always check for hedgehogs before lighting bonfires, or using garden machinery such as stimmers and hedge-cutters. Piles of leaves and brushwood, or scruffy vegetation under hedges are the perfect locations for hedgehogs to rest or hibernate. If possible try to build your bonfire on the day of burning, or move it just before the main event. If you do need to tidy up or clear a garden area, check carefully for snoozing hogs first, and consider stacking the waste material in a quiet corner of the garden, or installing a hedgehog house (bought or home made) to provide a safe refuge.
Dates for your diary
October 21st: ‘Apple Day’ – if you are considering planting a tree in your garden, school grounds or community space this autumn, why not choose an apple or crab apple tree? Not only are they beautiful and produce free food to share, but they’re great for wildlife too.
October 28th: Clocks go back 1 hour – look out for nocturnal wildlife on your evening commute. Many creatures such as badgers, hedgehogs and foxes are victims on our busy roads on dark evenings.
October 31st: Halloween – as a change from ghouls and ghosts, why not celebrate the spookier side of nature; what creatures go bump in the dark?
November 5th: Bonfire night – remember remember to check for hedgehogs!