Nature Conservation Adviser, Crispin, Scott, looks at what goes on under ground and after dak. In particular, the ant hills that cover our many acres of parkland.

The snow comes, it goes…it comes back again…. The ice man cometh …and much of our wildlife will be struggling. Particularly since the cold weather arrived so early in winter. There could be three months of this ahead of us. Of course while many animals are struggling for food and warmth the fairly steady temperatures may also benefit those that hibernate or just slow their metabolism down. At least they know where they stand.

While the rest of us battle in and out of overheated shops fighting for the last orange flavoured Christmas pudding on the shelves or shiver in front of those horrid chiller units as a family from Billingshurst stockpiles white bread just in case it snows again, we could learn a thing or two from the Yellow meadow-ants in our parks. These wonderful little creatures create their own micro climate within their raised ant hills, which heat up nicely in summer. The ants are another of our “after dark” brigade, preferring to build the anthills (by bring fine soil particles to the surface) at night. But in winter under a layer of snow and ice the ants have gone deeper into their homes and are feeding on their own stockpile. The anthills are also home to root-dwelling aphids which feed on sap from plants and exude a “honeydew” fluid which the ants “milk” for food. In the winter, as everything slows down and times get tough, the ants often resort to eating the aphids, rather than their honeydew.

Snow covered ant hills at Petworth Park

Snow covered ant hills at Petworth Park

Lets hope for the sake of the Chalkhill blue butterflies on some of our downland sites that the ants do not resort to devouring too many of their larvae. The symbiotic relationship between this now scare butterfly and the ants is crucial – the ants get food and the butterfly larvae get underground protection…. So long as the ants do not decide, under their duvet of snow, to scoff the lot. And as for the Green woodpeckers…. These ants can make up 80% of their winter diet, but they will struggle to get their sharp bills into the frozen ground. Fortunately this member of the woodpecker family is not averse to coming to bird tables for nuts and meal worms, so all may not be lost.

In the meantime, after dark you may hear the soft “tseep” call of migrating Redwing. These charming members of the thrush family move south, mainly from Scandinavia when the weather gets cold, hoping to feed on berries, as well as worms and insects. They can be distinguished by a red patch under the wing, as the name implies – but I prefer to look for the elegant cream stripe above their eye – Thrushes with style!

You are unlikely to be “antwatching” in this weather, but the anthills that are such a feature of many parks such as Knole or Petworth look amazing under a covering of snow. Midwinter approaches – get out there and enjoy our countryside come rain, shine, ice or blizzard.

Find out more from Crispin Scott in our next  post.