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?
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.