Archives for category: Winter

Well, the end of the year has come and gone. The end of “International Year of Biodiversity”. (IYB, no less) Please don’t say you missed it!

I realise that there is a “year”, “week” or “day” to “celebrate” almost everything. I believe that there is even some sort of celebration of that most pernicious, disgusting and, frankly, evil member of the planet’s flora – the Brussels Sprout. But even this object of torture that torments us from childhood to the grave has its moments. If you cut out the middle man/woman and chuck them straight on the compost heap they can benefit any number of microbial species and will no doubt nourish our earth worms. The worms will go deeper into the soil as the surface temperatures drop, but a compost heap is likely to be warmer (as a result of all that decomposition). I have sometimes put a bit of old carpet on my heap to speed up the rotting process. If you do this, then roll back a bit of the carpet in cold, snowy weather you are likely to find birds aplenty descending on it to find worms and other invertebrates.

One species you are likely to see is the Robin. This charming little bird (as seen on a Christmas card recently, no doubt) is actually a bit of a brutish thug at this time of year, engaged in some aggressive activity to defend its territory. Robins have no doubt been put off vegetarianism by the thought of sprouts, and prefer to eat meal worms from bird tables. They are the gardener’s friend – I have a “pet” on my allotment (whom I have imaginatively named “Robin”) who follows me up and down the plot as I dig.

Talking of aggressive, largely (but not solely) male behaviour, at the end of IYB…. There are other parallels in the generally mindless, drunken lechery and aggression that is sometime referred to by us humans as “celebrating” New Year’s Eve. As the New Year begins you can see some of our early breeding birds coming into full breeding plumage. Try and see through the apparently sordid mating scenes of the Mallards on your local Trust pond. Admittedly the females look battered and scarred and can sometimes be drowned by the “over-amorous” behaviour of a group of drakes, but this seems to be the way they work and you may wish to concentrate your thoughts on the male’s plumage. The head which may look, at first sight, to be dark green can shimmer as it moves from a sort of luminescent turquoise to blue and purple. And look at the colours of Starlings too. Close up that apparently dull dark brown/black also goes through all sorts of shades of deep purple – showing the sort of subtle “make up” and glamour that nature can produce but us humans may struggle with as we prepare to go out for New Year.

Mallards on frozen water at Petworth Park

After dark you will still hear the ducks (carrying on all night!), and last night I listened to a coo-ing collared dove sitting on a snow covered chimney in the cold and dark. But daytime also brings sounds of impending spring. If the sun manages to poke through you will here the “squeaky wheelbarrow” call of Great tits and the chirpy and generally “happy” sound of Chaffinches as their minds turn to finding a mate and getting down to the business of…well… life

So IYB comes to an end as 2010 closes, but I am glad to say that there is a sequel … well there is in my book. If “biodiversity” is simply our variety of wildlife, then every year is one in which to celebrate it, fancy logo or not.

A new year starts here – get out to your local Trust property and enjoy it…Ravens and Peregrines on the White Cliffs; orchids on the North Downs (and Bee Orchids in Batemans car park); Dartford warblers (have they survived the cold?) on our Surrey and West Sussex heaths; “mad” March Hares on the lawn at Uppark; Serotine bats at Polesden Lacey; dragonflies gracing ponds at Nymans, Ightham, Hatchlands and Sissinghurst and, best of all in my book, nearly 2,000 hectares of Trust woodland to explore in Kent, Sussex and Surrey.

Early morning, afternoon tea time, or after dark… get out there and enjoy it.


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.

Returning to our scheduled post this week Crispin Scott, our Nature Conservation Adviser will be talking about what goes on in the natural world during the winter months.

Welcome to December. We are almost at the shortest day. Christmas and New Year are just around the corner and the weather has turned as cold and snowy as it has been for decades at this time of year. As the days are at their shortest and temperatures plummet, how is our wildlife coping?

People walking in the snow at Box Hill, Surrey

Nature has a number of strategies for dealing with the cold, dark days of winter, so I thought it may be worth thinking about what you might call “the opposite of summer”. Think of all those lovely warm days among the butterflies, birds and wildflowers in flaming June….and now fast forward to the present and imagine what is happening underground and after dark in Paul Simon’s “Deep and Dark December”. Actually, after dark it can be more like Jonny Rotten’s “Anarchy in the U.K” with death, destruction and violence. Oh, and a lot of sex.

 Cold and hunger are starting to take their toll, as the fight for food continues and the malnourished fall sick. In daylight I have seen sick looking pigeons and rabbits sitting in the open, almost motionless, looking as though they are the foxes’ next meal. But after dark I have also noticed a number of roadside deer, fox and badgers carcasses in the last week. Are these the animals more vulnerable as they have to search more desperately for food and become disorientated with hunger and disease?  It becomes survival of the fittest in these conditions and one of the “fittest” groups is the crow family. One of its members, the Magpie is being accused of damaging songbird populations with brutal attacks on eggs and young in the summer. But it is the fact that they can survive the winter by feasting on “road carrion” that keeps their numbers high – so there are more to carry out their nest-raiding in summer.

 In the meantime, underground, hedgehogs are conserving energy in the months when food is short by hibernating, buried under piles of leaves or even using rabbit holes.  Likewise, bats will be using underground sites and hollow trees – hoping for a constant temperature a few degrees above freezing. Any disturbance, or sudden temperature rise, can wake them up. If this happens they will probably have to feed – since they can use as much of their vital fat reserves in a couple of waking hours as they might use in two weeks hibernation. I suspect that our bats, and possibly other hibernating mammals, may be getting confused by the changing climate. There seems to be little predictability now and in most years in the last decade we have experienced mild winters. This leads to bats emerging from hibernation earlier in March, then having to find insect food during cool damp spring nights. And the females, having mated in autumn, have a delayed fertilisation mechanism, meaning that they do not actually become pregnant until some inbuilt mechanism (presumably linked to temperature and humidity) triggers the process as weather improves in spring.

And talking of sex…. One of the most evocative night-time sounds in our countryside is the call of an owl. In December (and I always feel that the “screech” of the Barn Owl and the “Twit-too woo” of Tawny owls sounds most haunting in mid winter) there is a good deal of territorial calling as they pair up and prospect for nest sites, to mate and lay eggs in February/March. You need to hurry if you want to put nest boxes up and expect success next spring. In the meantime, you may get a chance to see or hear Short-eared owls in southern England at this time of year. Both species tend to breed further north, but the often overwinter in woodland at the foot of the downs.

So if you want to get out and about, there are few more dramatic scenes than our countryside at dusk in the depths of winter. After dark is great, but do not disturb anything underground! And of course, you will see much happening in daylight. Barn owls are often visible in late afternoon in winter. They nest, for example, in fields at the foot of Leith Hill.  The scenery around Back Down and Hindhead on the Surrey/Sussex border is looking stunning and you may see buzzards looking for vulnerable prey over Petworth Park at the moment.  Nearly all our properties in London and South East have places you ca n walk and enjoy wildlife this December. Get out and make the most of it – even those “bullying” magpies look spectacular and, like Jonny Rotten, probably get a bad press.

Check back next week to find out more about the natural world.